Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Whom" Is Dumb.

This will be one of those blog posts where I go and court controversy. No, it won't be about software piracy. Something worse. I'm going to tempt the anger of grammar people.

I make my living as a writer. Sure, game design and programming are part of it, but the main selling point of my games has always been the stories. Each game I write has over one hundred thousand words, enough for a decently sized novel. That means that many young, impressionable minds have spent hours and hours reading my writing, being infected by my questionable grammar and unwholesome penchant for. Sentence fragments.

Thus, when I take the side of the Visigoths who want to simplify the rules of our language, I get to have a actual (if small) influence on how my young readers write, simply by being a bad example. It is a grim responsibility, and, at times, I must take a stand. I must use my awesome Role Model power to Make a Difference. Therefore, I must make this proclamation.

I will never use the word "whom" again. It's stupid.

Turning My Ignorance Into a Sacred Principle

Actually, I still have no idea exactly when to write whom and whomever and whomungous. I must have had bronchitis the day they covered that in school. (The same day they explained how to tell what syllable is accented and how relativity works.) So, for the sixteen years I've spent writing my million words and counting, I've never used "whom" properly unless prompted by proofreading beta testers. The rest of the time, I used "who" and "whoever."

And you know something? Hasn't done a bit of harm. Hasn't harmed comprehensibility at all. Hasn't earned me a single complaint from a customer in sixteen years. And, believe me, I get complaints about everything.

Don't get me wrong. Grammar has its place, and its rules should be obeyed. First, however, it is fair to evaluate those rules and see if they carry their freight. Does the effort to have the rule justify itself with better communication?

In this case, no. Everything "whom" does can be done with "who." This inefficiency offends my soul.

Also, using "whom" makes one sound really, really affected and twitlike. Which is not usually my goal. (Only sometimes.)

So I'm done with it.

But I Believe In Compromise.

I have to admit that the word "whom" sounds pretty nice. It's an elegant, cultured sounding word, the sort of word that might be used by Jane Austen or an Ent. I can see that some might be saddened by its loss.

Therefore, I propose this compromise: You can use the word "whom" when it would be correct, under the old, dead rules. In addition, you can use "whom" whenever you would say "who," or whenever it would sound good, or at any other point.

For example, by this new, simple, elegant rule, the following sentences are considered to be correct:

"Whom just fell into the wheat thresher?"

"You must be the hobbits whom are from the Shire?"

"Whom whom whom hello there whom whom whom whom whom."

Ahhhh. That Felt Kind Of Good.

I hope that all whom are reading this join me in my crusade against "whom." Being a Visigoth is really lots of fun. Give in.

And I wish upon all of you whom the same blessing I have been given: That, when you want to spend some time tearing down instead of building up, you also have access to at least a few young, impressionable minds. It's awesome. Whom.


  1. You know... I used to have this same issue. Then I learned German. That language's strict grammar rules forced me to learn the proper use of who and whom as they both have equivalents in German.

    I could go into which goes where and easy ways to remember it but it seems that you have already made up your mind. =)

  2. Who is to whom as he is to him. So if you want to go around making statements equivalent to, "I talked to he," or, "Him jumped across the narrow chasm"... well, that's your business. :-P It's true enough, but also sad, that many people won't notice the difference.

  3. To whom it may concern (I always wanted to start off a post like that)...

    I say use it properly when necessary so it stays in your head as somewhat important.

    The way the damned Oxford Dictionary has gone into the language shorthand toilet by legitimizing illiteracy and nonsense words blurted out and overused by dopes who never learned to spell correctly (or write a proper letter) makes "old" words like whom worth keeping around, I say...


  4. Hey there Jeff, I've been reading you for a few months now and you've got some pretty interesting stuff here.

    About this whole "whom" business, as an English major I find it pretty rare that any of my professors ever really care that we use it in anything. In fact, it's become a safer bet to *not* use it, because they only care when it's used wrong, not when it isn't used.

    I find it's a holdover, a lot like splitting infinitives ("to boldly go", as opposed to the 'correct' "to go boldly"). There's no real reason we can't, and it's just the product of someone applying the rules of a completely different language (Latin) to our own. Language evolves, and we just discard parts of it that don't see use. People will complain and look down on those who choose to go with the "current" language, but they can't stop the evolution from happening, so...

    ...uhm, whoo! Yeah! Visigoths!

  5. The one time you really must use "whom" is when you are writing dialogue for a character who uses precise English grammar (like an archivist, aristocrat, etc), and his grammar would call for it. Also, sometimes it still just sounds wrong to use 'who', as in "To who am I speaking?" or "For who does the bell toll?", but those are not very common.

    In general though I think linguists would agree that grammar should be descriptive and not prescriptive -- if everyone uses 'who' in a context where it used to be 'whom', then 'who' is now a valid choice.

  6. Dude.

    You're a writer of sorts. It's 2011, and we have this thing called Google.

    (Siemova gave away Grammar Girl's big hint)

  7. I must be naive, but I really can't tell whether Jeff really really doesn't understand the difference between a subject and a direct object, or he's just engaging in some fun hyperbole here.

  8. Seriously, preach on, whom is so pointless.

    If they can let bling in the Oxford dictionary, then they should be able to remove antiquated words like whom that serve no purpose.

  9. I like Jeff, him is a good writer. :)

  10. Haha!! A man after my own heart! I think it's also hilarious how after saying YOU DON'T CARE, the first half-dozen comments are all indirectly criticizing you.

    I always hated English classes. Not because I wasn't good at it, I was, I had college level reading/writing skills in 7th grade. No, I hated it because it was so rigid and dead. Sure, things need rules, but something as awesome as language should live and be bent to the will of those using it, not the other way around. I remember back in college, I was not well received. See, I actually liked to express myself when writing, and for me that includes flexible punctuation, dramatic sentence fragments (I KNOW you know what I'm talking about there!), etc. Nope. (See what I did there!!)

    As for the whole "who/whom" thing (I also adore using "scare quotes" like that), I use whom and I know where to put it or not, but to each their own. I have my own individual quirks and flare, but I embrace them, as should you! Visigoths unite!!

    [ironically humorous grammar nazi]
    (Oh, btw, in the 3rd paragraph, "a actual" should be "an actual".)
    [ironically humorous grammar nazi]

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  13. Sometimes you just have to let it out. I am a writer too, trying to get published.

  14. A writer needs to understand the language he's writing, and how his characters use it. There are different registers of English, from street to literary formal, and each uses words differently. Having a character use "whom" in ways that are inappropriate for his register either makes the character look like he's making an effort to talk dumb or fancy, or is just jarring to the reader.

  15. I have no problem with people replacing all instances of "whom" with "who". It is where modern English is headed, really. However, I cringe/laugh whenever someone uses "whom" in the wrong spot. Using "whom" is *always* a subtle attempt to sound intelligent, and it can backfire badly. :]

  16. @The Buzz Saw:

    I might agree with your "attempt to sound intelligent" theory if you restricted it to spoken English. When I write, I proofread what I write. I'm not attempting anything but clear communication.

  17. The dekline of literasee is now neerly kompleet. Soon us wil get rid of uneeded leter C as wel. Us mite even be able to stop ading leter U behind evree Q. Leter X is also unesesary, as it cood eesilee be replased by ether KS or Z. Me is espeshuly pleesed that noun "disrespect" is now widely aksepted as verb, and, even beter, is shortened to "diss".

    Ogre wil sune be gramer profesur.

  18. Ooh, him write entry good.

  19. I totally agree that learning German (or Latin, or a few other languages) makes so much click into place. English is a complicated mess, but there are some sensible concepts underpinning it, which rarely get taught in English class and are often ignored in daily conversation.

    Of course, the most annoying part of English is the lack of a second person plural. You have to either be ambiguous or use a sometimes-awkward colloquialism.

  20. Oh, and the fact that "one" sounds incredibly awkward and formal compared to the less-correct "you".

    There seems to be a running theme here.

  21. There's a great summary of who/whom here:

    The summary is:

    "if it’s still not clear, go with “who.” You’ll bother fewer people and have a fair chance of being right."

  22. I always thought that this was a proofreader's job anyway, not the writer's. Having to think about grammar only hinders creativity.

  23. Some hair splitting (or not) according to Wikipedia, a novel has to be over 40 000 words long. And I know that agents request that first fantasy novels be around 80 000-90 000 words long. 1000 barely qualifies as a short story. It doesn't mean that you write less of a story because part of the story telling is not in words.

    You might think I'm nitpicking, but I'm not, I enjoy your blog and the level of inaccuracy in this comment made me shudder a little. I'm not used to that from you. Cheers.

  24. @Chantal
    Except he said "over one hundred thousand words" that is 100,000+ which seems to fall firmly in novel territory.

  25. I'm glad that you brought up something about grammar in context to your games. I would have to say that I probably wouldn't have had such great scores in my English classes throughout middle school/high school if not for playing your games while growing up. Beginning to play through the Avernum series when I was 8 was probably the best thing to happen to me academically.

    It Piqued my interests in reading and writing, and I thought it be appropriate that I thank you for your work. If I had stumbled upon some game with mediocre, non-descriptive story writing at the time I don't think I would ever have begun reading so many books so critically, since reading critically is what it took to beat those games (Knowing the small details that help with completing quests and such). So anyways, thank you Jeff!

  26. When I wrote my book my editor said that grammar is not made of rules, really. The only important thing is your text gets the point across as clearly as possible - even if that means bending or breaking MLA handbook rules. I always felt that way of course, but it was nice to hear someone who's JOB it was to edit things say it. If I had known that in High School I'd of thrown that statement around with reckless abandon!

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    Ok, I see it now, I don't know how I missed it the first time around since I reread that sentence many times. Now I feel silly.

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