The waning use of the word ‘whom’

Whom is now mostly relegated to written language, appearing in literature, academic papers, and the Mueller report. 

Jonathan Short/Invision/AP/File
It's rare to come across ‘whom’ in the lyrics written by contemporary American musicians (such as rapper and singer Drake, pictured above at a concert in June 2015).

I studied abroad in Austria when I was in college, and sometimes I like to listen to the Austrian Top 40 to hear some German. Recently a pop-rap song came on called “Pass auf, wen Du Liebst” (“Be careful whom you love”). “That’s grammatically correct!” I thought. “How strange!” American and British singers would never use whom, the English equivalent of wen. There are more than a dozen songs with the title “Who do you love?” and nary a one using what grammarians would say is the proper form of the pronoun. Do German rappers have better grammar? What do we have against whom?

Whom is now mostly relegated to written language, appearing in literature, academic papers, and the Mueller report. It is rarely heard, even in the most rarefied contexts, as linguists Yoko Iyeiri and Michiko Yaguchi found when they analyzed White House press briefings and academic faculty meetings. Using it is a dangerous undertaking, because even if employed correctly, it can be seen as “frozen, archaic, stifling, or artificial,” as linguist Alan Kaye explains. He means “pretentious” but is too polite to say so.

The disappearance of whom is not a new development. It has been in steady decline since around 1830. A character in Shakespeare, for example, asks, “Who wouldst thou strike?” 

Most English-speakers no longer have an intuitive sense of when to use whom, and hundreds of websites and grammar guides have stepped up to offer tips for figuring it out. Usually they advise replacing who/whom with a form of he/she, which we can do intuitively. If he/she works, the sentence needs a subject and the pronoun should be who; if him/her is better, it needs whom. This rule works well with the song title and the Shakespeare quote, but is less helpful when sentences get more complicated.

Wen, the German whom, is still in common use because German is a “moderately inflected” language, as English was 1,000 years ago. Inflection is the way a language changes to mark things like verb tense, noun case, or noun gender. 

German is not as complicated as the highly inflected Latin, but it still has four noun cases, which are distinguished by various endings, different articles, and adjective agreement. In English, for example, our definite article is simply “the”; in German, there are six distinct forms that are used 16 different ways. German-speakers instinctively know when to go for wen because they make analogous linguistic choices all the time. English today is only weakly inflected and becoming ever less so.  

German musicians are not showing us up with their superior mastery of difficult grammatical points. “Who do you love?” is a natural consequence of English’s disappearing inflections.

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