Who Are / Is Right? Whomever, It's a Continuing Battle

When the last battle is fought between language purists and liberals it will most likely be over who and whom .

In confessing recently that I had used whom when who was correct (an unforgivable sin), I vowed that I would never use whom again except when it directly followed a preposition, as in "For whom the bell tolls."

This dismayed several purists, who have written to condemn me in terms either caustic or sad, depending on their natures.

"Despite your advice," writes Edward G. Lowell of Tarzana, "I'm going to stick with whom and with whoever uses it."

(Notice that Lowell was not seduced by his decision into writing "with whomever uses it.")

Edward F. Garcia was more unforgiving: "My first impulse on reading your whom gaffe the other day," he wrote, "was to sit right down and write you a letter chiding you on your lapse. I decided against doing so, however, because I didn't want to add to the blizzard of complaining letters you would receive."

I had noted that I had received only three letters on the subject, and suggested that most people must not know the difference.

"The fact that there were only three such letters is not grounds for complacency on your part," Garcia goes on. "For every letter writer there are probably a hundred readers who dismissed you as an illiterate and/or pretentious clod and forgot about it."

I hope so. I would hate to think that the low response meant that my readers are so few or else illiterate. I am much buoyed up by Garcia's explanation.

Garcia says I made exactly the same mistake a few years ago, and that on that occasion "you brazened it out and said you were correct and that the complainants were being pretentious. Not wishing to tilt against invincible ignorance, I resisted my impulse (to write)."

Sol Modell of Woodland Hills disagrees with me about the continued use of whom . "I happen to think that whom is a beautiful word and that it would be tragic for this word to be excised from our language."

Jean Redfern of La Mirada sends me a copy of a letter she received from Fred Holley, The Times' official word watcher and author of our style book, in answer to her complaint about the misuse of whom in the paper.

"You are, of course, quite right," Holley wrote in part. "The chief difficulty with who / whom is the tendency to use whom where who is called for. I suppose this is the result of our having had the objective form beaten into us at an early age without sufficient warning as to when its use is incorrect. So people who don't know for sure usually opt for whom : It sounds more literate. (As in 'Whom shall I say is calling?')"

Meanwhile, a skirmish on the sidelines of this issue has developed over a quotation from the linguist S. I. Hayakawa. I quoted him as saying "If a boy ignores his arithmetic teacher and states that 8 times 7 are 63, he will be laughed at by his friends; but if he obeys his English teacher and says 'With whom are you going to the party?' instead of 'Who are you going to the party with?' he will also be laughed at."

Several readers have complained about Hayakawa's arithmetic. "Shame on you," writes Jeanne Jones of Oxnard, "trying to trick us oldsters into thinking we didn't learn our times tables (today's youngsters don't; they use computers). Eight times 7 is (and always has been) 56--not 63!"

"Since 8 times 7 are actually 56 (not 63)," writes Lowell Pepper of Goleta, "the boy in the example will assuredly be laughed at. I think Jack Smith our trying to pull are leg."

Of course Hayakawa put the incorrect figure in the boy's mouth because that was his point . The boy was laughed at because he made an error that everyone recognized.

Now, when I repeated those figures in my argument that the verb should have been is , not are (8 times 7 is 63), I don't know whether I realized that 8 times 7 is actually 56 or not. (I'm worse at arithmetic than I am at grammar.)

Anyway, I'm glad to see that Jeanne Jones agrees with me about the is .

Another small matter must be cleared up, and then I'm through with the subject. Ruth L. Smith, of Van Nuys, and others have pointed out that the source of Jesus' words, "But whom say you that I am?" is Matthew 16.15 (King James Version), not Matthew 14.15 as noted in my column. (In revised editions Jesus says who .

I quoted that directly from "American Usage and Style: The Consensus," by Roy H. Copperud, who attributed it to Matthew 14.15. I didn't check it out, and I am no more a biblical scholar than I am a mathematician. I apologize for both Prof. Copperud and myself.

How's that for invincible ignorance?

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