Friday, November 6, 2009

Who's That? An Elegy

We are gathered today to mourn the passing of a beloved relative and close kin. Though the subject lingers, the kin are seen less and less often and will, I fear, fade from memory. I speak of a relative familiar to all. Who once was always there for people. Who could be independent or subordinate. Who coordinated the flow of information when called upon. Who could always make everything perfectly clear.

I am of course referring to the relative pronoun who and its kin whom and whose. English prefers the use of who to refer to humans: “He is a man who drinks good beer”; “I admire people who play an instrument.” Increasingly over the last 20 years, however, writers have been replacing who with that: “a man that drinks good beer”; “people that play an instrument.” This grates on my ear and my sensibilities. I think writers (and speakers) avoid who because they are uncertain when who should morph into whom. “She is someone whom I like” isn’t as easy a construction as “She is someone that I like.” Since either is technically correct, writers turn coward and choose the sure thing, demoting animated humans to the status of inanimate objects.

The who problem belongs in the general category of pronoun problems that involve case. Unlike Latin and Arabic, English no longer inflects nouns for case—for their grammatical function—except for pronouns. The pronouns change depending on whether they are used as subjects (I, she, we, they) or objects (me, her, us, them) or possessives (my, her, our, their as adjectives; mine, hers, ours, theirs as nouns). We learn to ring these changes as infants imbibing grammar along with vocabulary, and we make the changes easily—as long as we don’t have to think about them. No native English speaker is going to commit errors like “Them told we to go home” or “Us gave he a hard time,” but these examples involve simple subjects and objects in simple independent clauses. More sophisticated structures such as dependent clauses requiring relative pronouns are not so straightforward.

As a simple pronoun and subject, especially in questions, who retains its vigor and can never be replaced with that. No one is going to say “That goes there?” or “That am I?” On the other hand, who is often used incorrectly in place of whom: “Who am I speaking to?” should be “Whom am I speaking to?” or, more elegantly, “To whom am I speaking?” The more elegant formation tells us why whom is correct; it is the object of the preposition and must be in the objective case.

There are various ways to test whether who or whom is correct; among the simplest is to replace it with he or him. It also helps to turn a question, which inverts subject and verb, into a statement, which puts all the elements into their accustomed order. For the example above, these two operations produce “I am speaking to him,” and the need for the objective form becomes clear. In analyzing the sentence “She is the writer (who, whom) I admire the most,” it is again helpful to put the elements into a simpler grammatical form. It is the business of relative pronouns to coordinate two related thoughts. If we separate them, we get two independent structures, in this case “She is the writer” (independent but incomplete) and “I admire her the most.” The use of her as the object of the verb admire tells us to use whom: “She is the writer whom I admire the most.” A simpler test is that if the dependent clause has its own subject (in this case I), the objective case is most likely to be correct for the relative pronoun that introduces it. If the pronoun is followed directly by a verb, the pronoun is most likely the subject, and who will be correct: “I’m the one who knows what’s going on.”

An entirely different problem arises with whose. People generally use it correctly but confuse it with its homophone who’s when writing. Like your and you’re and its and it’s, one is a possessive pronoun (whose, your, its) and the other is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb (you areyou’re, it is or it hasit’s, who is or who haswho’s). The only way to write it correctly is to know what you mean. If you don’t know what you mean, you have no business expecting people to read what you write. ’Nuff said.

Don’t let cowardice and ignorance toll the death knell on our beloved relative who. Stick up for the difference between people and rocks! Be someone who gives humans the dignity of their special pronoun, and never let that dehumanize them again!

This is article 12 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

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