Monday, May 16, 2005

To Whom It May Concern

The word "whom" is on its deathbed, and is soon to be lost to the language. Its loss is part of the evolution of English - as the language spreads and is being spoken by more and more people, its grammatical constructs are becoming more free. Ancient languages, like Greek, Latin and Irish, are quite baroque in their grammatical construct, and remain so while so few people speak them, but English is quickly shedding these pedantic niceties as it hurries to take over the world.

However, English has not shed them all quite yet; "whom" is still a word in common and if not correct usage, and while "whom" is still in common usage An Spailpín will by God have it used correctly or not at all. Incorrect use of "whom" is one of An Spailpín's pet hates, along with people who don't scald teapots before making tea and people who shoot up their heroin on the upper decks of Dublin buses - we'll cut out this nonsense straight away.

Let's consider the following sentence: "Tommy hit Danny with a wooden plank." Once you can figure out the difference between hitting someone with a four by two and getting hit with a four by two - and I can give you every assurance that the difference is very real - then you are half-way to figuring out the difference between the words "who" and "whom."

In grammar, a distinction is drawn between people who do things and people who have things done to them. The doer of an action is called the subject of the action, and the person or thing that gets the business end of the four by two is the object of the action. In our example, "Tommy hit Danny with a wooden plank," Tommy is the subject and Danny is the object.

Simple, really.

Some languages change the way a word looks according to what it does in a sentence - whether it's the subject or the object of a sentence. English doesn't, with one exception - the personal pronouns. When we're using personal pronouns, "I" does the action, is the subject, but "me" is the object. "He/she" is a subject pronoun, "him/her" is an object pronoun - "He hit him with a wooden plank." And when it comes to relative pronouns, "who" is a subject pronoun, and "whom" is an object pronoun. "Who" does the action, "whom" has the action done to him or her. "Who hit whom with a wooden plank?" "He hit him with a wooden plank."

Easy, peasy. When in doubt, try using he or him instead of who or whom in the sentence - the correct usage will soon click into place. You can then go about your business, knowing that though your tie may sometimes be crooked, your grammar will always be straight.