Submitted by Brus  •  September 4, 2011

What happened to who, whom and whose?

Has the English relative pronoun ‘who/whom/whose’ been banned while I was not looking? It seems to have been replaced by the ugly use of the word ‘that’. On the rare occasions when it can be spotted in printed prose in, for example, a newspaper, ‘who’ is used for ‘whom’ and it is all very disappointing. I write as a disillusioned and pedantic old schoolmaster (retired) whose 12 year old pupils had no problem learning how to deal with ‘who’ and ‘whom’ and ‘to whom’. I blame the Americans for this desecration of our language.

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Languages evolve, normalize, and simplify. Best resign yourself.

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Americans? Shakespeare couldn't get who/whom straight.

Albany. Run, run, O, run!
Edgar. To who, my lord?
- King Lear

Elbow. My wife, sir, whom I detest before heaven and your honour -
Escalus. How? thy wife?
Elbow. Ay, sir; whom I thank heaven is an honest woman.
- Measure for Measure

http://books.google.com/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&a...

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Good point - the Americans are better than the English at getting this bit right. But they don't seem to like using any of the wh- words at all and use "that" in its place.

Eg "People that saw what happened ..."

and we must resist!

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I've been down this road so many times that I kept the URLs:

... there is a long history of writers using that as a relative pronoun when writing about people. Chaucer did it, for example.

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/who-versus...

That normally refers to things but it may refer to a class or type of person.

http://englishplus.com/grammar/00000255.htm

---

If ye want to complain about who/whom ... then let's go back and stop using "you" as the nominative! It was the plural objective! Now it is singular/plural nominative/objective ... So why worry about a little thing like who/whom!

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@Brus: Not all Americans do this. Many of us cringe at the use of "that" for "who" (along with a myriad of other errors). I think it's a generational thing. You won't find many educated Americans over the age of 55 misusing the two words.

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Carol: quite right, not all Americans use "that" in place of "who/whom" and the English are worse! I agree that it is an 'educated' and older persons' bugbear. Niles and Fraser Crane wouldn't do it and nor would Martin!

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I don't know if this is a cultural thing. One's speech is a reflection of his or her education and level of apathy. Most people are educated in the matter, but don't care enough to remember or put it into practice. I agree with Kyle about languages evolving, but they should only evolve for improvement, not reduced complexity. "That" and "who/whom" can sometimes be used interchangeably, and I feel this is something that has come to being due to the lack of education about the topic. The use of "who" in all cases including those which require "whom" is simply unacceptable. The difference between the usage of "who" and "whom" is no gray area in the language. The rules on the matter are clearly defined. It seems that this error arises from the constant placement of prepositions at the end of sentences. If people would just use prepositions correctly in a sentence, the proper usage of "who" and "whom" would become plain to the human ear.

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As AnWulf has said and everyone seems to have ignored, "that" and "who" used interchangeably isn't the fault of Americans, or young people, or lack of education. Using the word "that" refer to people is part of normal English.
http://books.google.com/books?id=2yJusP0vrdgC&a...

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"Normal" English? It is certainly very common!

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"The Man that fell to Earth" or "Ladies that Lunch": "people that care" about the English language must despair. It is just plain ugly usage to have the word 'that' replace "who" -
"The man who fell to Earth" and "Ladies who lunch" are the forms which people who care would use!

I still think they must have banned the word when I wasn't looking. It is used on government websites and those of other institutions which should know better, such as the BBC.

What is the motive for this? Is English grammar too hard for them?

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I blame Microsoft Word Spellcheck. Before I handed in my essay, all my "whom"s were underlined with squiggly green lines. Spellcheck wanted "who". I thought it was whom, but who am I to argue with Spellcheck? I changed my "whom"s to "who"s and my lecturer marked me down. Spellcheck changes my "which"s to "that"s (eg, "a tradition which has been handed down", spellcheck wants them all to say "a tradition THAT has been handed down" and it sneakily changes some of my British spellings to the American version without even telling me about it. I changed "diaspora" to "Diaspora" because of a squiggly red spellcheck line, got marked down for that as well. Goddamn Spellcheck, demolishing our language!

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Spellcheck is one culprit, then. I said in the first place that I blame the Americans, but had modified that stance since then. The word "Spellcheck" gets a red wiggly line too!!
Is it something to do with English now being used as a second language, perhaps, or is it just the abject failure of some schools to teach grammar? As Boris Johnson says, anyone who has learned Latin is incapable of writing a bad English sentence, and that is because Latin requires a total understanding of sentence structure.
The further failure of politicians to use the word "who", insisting on "that", and their avoidance of the subjunctive "may" and "might", hint at inverse snobbery rather than poor education - they dread appearing to be elitist (is it true that New Labour tried to abolish the using of English words with Latin roots, for this reason?) but that is another rant for another day.

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Spellcheck is one culprit, then. I said in the first place that I blame the Americans, but had modified that stance since then. The word "Spellcheck" gets a red wiggly line too!!
Is it something to do with English now being used as a second language, perhaps, or is it just the abject failure of some schools to teach grammar? As Boris Johnson says, anyone who has learned Latin is incapable of writing a bad English sentence, and that is because Latin requires a total understanding of sentence structure.
The further failure of politicians to use the word "who", insisting on "that", and their avoidance of the subjunctive "may" and "might", hint at inverse snobbery rather than poor education - they dread appearing to be elitist (is it true that New Labour tried to abolish the using of English words with Latin roots, for this reason?) but that is another rant for another day.

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You cannot desecrate the mundane. There has never been a golden age of English usage before your pure sacred language was muddied in the mouths of those boorish commoners. I am certain that people that care about such tiresome minutia care more for their own self importance than they do for the living language.
I imagine your poor pupils also had to eschew the dreaded dangling preposition. Well it is my language too, and you are fucking it up.This kind of obsequious litigiousness with regard to the Rules of English does more to degrade the language than any misused relative pronoun. A language, who's rules do not change with time, dies.

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Eat your words, Entomophagist! You spelled 'minutiae' and 'whose' wrong, by the way. Of course language changes as time passes, but there is no need for it to be debased.

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@Kyle

I agree that language evolves, but unfortunately all too often the normalisation and simplification merely amount to a process of dumbing down and in some cases even debasement of the language.
Surely evolution should mean improvement?

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The distinction among who, whom and whose has become merely an affect. If you want to sound like you are 'of the people', you should say, "I gave it to whom", because it is the object of a preposition. But if you want to sound like a normal person, just say, "I gave it to him/her", which is not a direct object, but is correct in common usage.

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Matt P:
Fill in the missing word from the ones on the list in brackets: "The old lady ~~~~ I had helped across the street thanked me." (she/her/who/whom/that). And again: "The man to ~~~~ I had given a lift gave me $10." (him/them/who/that/whom). You would argue, and I would agree, that "whom" is the right choice in the first sentence, because it is the object (of helped) but you think it is merely an affect (sic) to put "whom" in the second one, and you would put "him", you say, because "to" is a preposition: "The man to him I had given a lift ...". I don't think so.

My problem with what you call "normal persons'" use of English now is that people are using "that" in, for example, my first sentence above (The old lady that I had helped ...) but know that "that" is no good in the second test sentence: "The man to that I had given ...".

My second grievance is that people know to use a "wh~" word (relative pronoun - because it relates back to the man (or the woman, or whatever) mentioned earlier (the antecedent). In French it is "qui" or "que" depending on subject/object, in German it is "wer, wie. ... or another from a chart of 24 such words, and in Latin there are 30 from which to choose the right one. In English there are 3: "who, whom, whose". As you have said, we should use "whom" in the second sentence because it goes with (is governed by) "to" and in fact it is the indirect object of "given a lift".

When the language is used incorrectly, it is not a clue that one is a "normal person" nor is it an affectation. It is a sign that one is being sloppy, which is fine in day to day chat, but not when it is done in formal situations, such as written language. My grievance is that sloppy English is now used where it should not be, by people who should know better.

I think you are confused too about what "common" and "of the people" signify.

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To clarify : In other words, people use "that" in the first sentence - "the old lady that I had helped.." but know better and use a "wh~~" word (a relative pronoun, to be exact) in the second sentence: "the man to that I had given..."?? - so should know to use a "wh~~" word in both examples. That is my first quibble: if you can get one right, why not both?

My second problem is that people do not know which "wh~~" word to use. It should be "whom" in both sentences, as it is not the subject of "given" nor of "helped" - if it were, it would be "who" - but NOT "that"!

Is that clearer?

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To clarify : In other words, people use "that" in the first sentence - "the old lady that I had helped.." but know better and use a "wh~~" word (a relative pronoun, to be exact) in the second sentence: "the man to that I had given..."?? - so should know to use a "wh~~" word in both examples. That is my first quibble: if you can get one right, why not both?

My second problem is that people do not know which "wh~~" word to use. It should be "whom" in both sentences, as it is not the subject of "given" nor of "helped" - if it were, it would be "who" - but NOT "that"!

Is that clearer?

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@Brus
I agree 100%.
Unfortunately the demon of common usage conspires to defeat all attempts at maintaining the integrity of our language.

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So if "who" refers to people, and "that" refers to objects, what about the passage in Harry potter where Rowling says something like "the cabinet, whose doors bore engravings..."

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@kylierain ... Never ... never ... trust Microsoft Word's grammar check! ... Maybe it has gotten better since I tried it years ago, but it was so bad that I turned it off. For that matter, I don't even use MS Word anymore!

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Who for people, which for things. When the relative pronoun wh~~ is the subject of its own clause, who/which. When it is the object, whom/which. 'The man who left his door unlocked was burgled'. 'The door which stood open was ...'. 'The burglar whom I saw coming out was ...', 'The bag which he was carrying was ...'.
When we want "of whom" or "of which" a handy word is "whose" for people or things. JK Rowling's "The cabinet whose doors bore ..." is absolutely fine.
"To whom" and "to which" are for when the pronoun is the indirect object.
Please note that the word "that" should not be used as a relative pronoun, and if you try to use it after "of ~~" or "to ~~" it proves that it is not a relative pronoun, because you can't.

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Who for people, which for things. When the relative pronoun wh~~ is the subject of its own clause, who/which. When it is the object, whom/which. 'The man who left his door unlocked was burgled'. 'The door which stood open was ...'. 'The burglar whom I saw coming out was ...', 'The bag which he was carrying was ...'.
When we want "of whom" or "of which" a handy word is "whose" for people or things. JK Rowling's "The cabinet whose doors bore ..." is absolutely fine.
"To whom" and "to which" are for when the pronoun is the indirect object.
Please note that the word "that" should not be used as a relative pronoun, and if you try to use it after "of ~~" or "to ~~" it proves that it is not a relative pronoun, because you can't.

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What I want to comment on is not the substitution of "that" for "who/whom" but the substitution of "that" for "which" in defining relative clauses, now distressingly common. I don't mind that usage changes over time, except when changes are being driven by ignorance, which is usually the case nowadays. <a href="http://dennishodgson.blogspot.com/2010/04/relat... link</a> expands on these points.

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Both that and who/whom can be correct for people. It makes a useful distinction.

My neighbour that lives above me also complained about the noise.
My neighbour, who is very old, also complained about the noise.
My neigbour, whom I have never met, also complained about the noise.

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Perhaps it is useful to ask how the word "that" translates into French: if as I insist it means "who" it is "qui" so if it is "qui" it is "who". "That" has another meaning entirely, translating as "que" and to use it in place of "who" is just plain sloppy.

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@Brus
qui is the subject pronoun - for both people and things
Toi qui es si malin. - You who are so intelligent/astute
Prenez la rue qui monte - Take the street which/that goes up (the hill)

que is the object pronoun - for both people and things
Celle que j'aime - The one (who/that) I love
Les cadeaux que tu lui as faits - The presents (which/that) you have made for him

que - that - eg. to connect clauses
Je crois qu'il est là - I think (that) he's here (lit. there)
C'est dommage qu'il soit malade - It's a shame (that) he's ill (with subjunctive)

Examples from Le Robert Micro

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@Brus - 'Fill in the missing word from the ones on the list in brackets:
"The old lady ~~~~ I had helped across the street thanked me." (she/her/who/whom/that).
"The man to ~~~~ I had given a lift gave me $10." (him/them/who/that/whom).'

The problem with this is that you disallow the most natural answer in both cases. These are both defining (restrictive) relative clauses and the relative pronoun represents the object. In these cases we can and often do omit the relative pronoun altogether:

"The old lady I had helped across the street thanked me."

Just think of the songs, 'The man I love.', 'This is dedicated to the one I love.'

In the second one you are trying to force the issue with the positioning of the preposition 'to', which of course has to be followed by 'whom'. But most of us would shift the preposition to the end of the clause, giving:

"The man I had given a lift to gave me $10."

Just check out this ngram
http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=th...

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Do not say, damn you, that my husband Shakespeare (has anyone seen him lately, by the way?) does not know the correct usage of who and whom. You are quoting dialog--what the characters said--not my blessed husband. He knew well all the rules and even made up a few to boot but one must not blame the errors of nitwit characters on the master and Bard.

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I do find the who/whom issue very interesting, perhaps the most interesting "issue" or perhaps "nonissue" in English usage.
From the linguists point of view, that which is regularly used by many and understood by all is grammatical. That which is not, is agrammatical. "Who did you call?" and "Whom did you call?" are perfectly grammatical. "I saw boy the" is agrammatical.
It must be noted that linguists as social scientists must overlook their prejudices when they hear "It is for you and I", since this is perfectly grammatical.
As previously pointed out, "I seen him", "for you and I" , " I shoudda went" are perfectly grammatical, but give away the social class of the speaker.

That said, language does evolve. We no longer say "thee" and "thou". This was changing in the time of Shakespeare and is totally lost today.
Shakespeare fully understood the nuance of his words, and in fact "whom" was in the process of dropping out of English at the time of Shakespeare.
It is the way of evolution that thee and thou are archaic, but whom survives, in various contexts for various speakers.

One may note that the French still use the passé simple in writing but it is centuries displaced in spoken French. That is something of the case in English with "whom", I use it in writing by obligation, but only in very limited contexts in speaking.

If we can go by what universities world-wide teach learners of English as a second language, "whom" is obligatory in writing, and to be avoided as stilted or pedantic in speaking.

So it goes

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