Don’t Say Whomever

The latest article in the Freakonomics blog is kinda funny in trying to be serious about the perils of misinformation while also quoting and laughing at the accusation of…the Shadow Blog.

It’s only slightly funny when it misuses the word “whomever.” The misuse of “whom,” and my twitch about it, came up at lunch just today. So when I saw it in Freakonomics I felt that, although it’s not interesting, at least it’s not unexpected.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Whom and whomever may be tricky. You may not know exactly when to use them (rather than who and whoever). But my advice is heart-stoppingly simple: If you don’t know, then always use who and whoever. No one with any sense is ever going to blog that you screwed up by writing “who” when it should have been “whom.”

I know what you’re thinking, of course. No one with any sense is going to blog when you use whom wrong either. People won’t notice. And I can see that the charge against my having sense is a reasonable one.

But still. I have to ask myself: Why do people use whom when they don’t know it cold? I’m just wondering, in a sociological kind of way. Not judging anyone at all. Why?

3 Responses to “Don’t Say Whomever”

  1. September 6, 2007 at 9:29 am #

    People use it when they don’t know it cold because the only way to get the point that you know it cold is to use it.

    When I was growing up I read a lot. School was fine, but it didn’t cover the sort of things that I was really interested in with sufficient depth. Sure, we’d read a little Shakespeare, but I wanted more; I wanted to read Henry V, not just Romeo & Juliet. Yes, we’d read “The Raven” but what about “The Fall of the House of Usher”. On and on.

    Before long, I found that I had a pretty good vocabulary but there was a problem: it was a reading vocabulary, not a speaking vocabulary. I didn’t know the correct pronunciation of a lot of the words that I knew how to use. It was even more true for the names of authors, the names of places, and the names of characters. The first time I tried to talk to someone about “Al-BERT Cay-MUSS” I came across as a complete idiot, despite having read and enjoyed “The Plague”, “The Stranger”, and “The Myth of Sisyphus”.

    I know, Stephen Dubner is a journalist, and ought to know better, so it’s not the same. Still, try to be forgiving of us mortals. We want to be better than we are, and sometimes it can be uncomfortable to watch us writhe in our ignorance. But at least we’re trying.

  2. September 6, 2007 at 7:48 pm #

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean in your first sentence….

    Anyway, I think that everyone mangles grammar and pronunciation and even word meaning when they’re talking.

    The point of talking is to communicate quickly and easily. It’s easy for the person listening and easy for the speaker. If we have to worry about being perfect all the time, then we stop talking.

    And even when writing a blog, most people shouldn’t, and don’t, sweat over every word. The purpose, like talking, is to be able to communicate quickly and easily.

    But when people use bigger, or more complicated, words than are necessary, I wonder whether sometimes they’re not doing it to better themselves, but to sound and feel smarter than the people they’re talking to.

    That’s why I don’t think it’s a problem to use “who” incorrectly. And I don’t mind if Dubner publishes a comma splice. But when he uses whom, I wonder why he does. It’s not because it’s ingrained in his writing (if it was, he’d get it right). So why do it? To better himself? Maybe, but I don’t see how that betters him more than looking up the usage.

    In your case, you had done the work. You read the books. In his case, I don’t think he has. He’s trying to sound as though he has.

    And of course, it’s not ALWAYS true that people who use the word incorrectly are trying to sound more educated than they are. Maybe they just learned it wrong. Dubner probably just typed it without thinking about it at all. Of course.

    But when I was eating lunch on the day in question, we didn’t talk about that, so I didn’t post it.

  3. September 7, 2007 at 9:38 am #

    ‘Whom are you?’ he asked, for he had attended business college.
    – George Ade (1866 – 1944), “The Steel Box”, 1898

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