Whom Do You Love?

I think that the English language must have changed when I wasn’t looking.  A recent Gallup Poll question asks:







The way my Mom always taught it to me was: who is the subject of a sentence, and whom is an object of a sentence.  Thus, shouldn’t this question be: whom would you blame if we go off the [misnamed] fiscal cliff?  The subject here is “you”. 

But now I see this so frequently that I figure either I am getting it totally wrong or that the language has changed.  That’s the way language always changes — in usage, not in the halls of L’academie Francaise.  I was always taught that if in Spanish you want to say, e.g., “There were many things” you would say Habia muchas cosas, but apparently now people are making it agree in number i.e. Habian muchas cosas.  And if that’s what people say, then that’s what people say.  But I wish someone would tell me!

Maybe it’s Bo Diddley’s fault.  But if so, it’s worth it. I’d certainly make that trade!


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

52 thoughts on “Whom Do You Love?”

  1. And if that’s what people say, then that’s what people say. But I wish someone would tell me!

    I think these two sentences are inconsistent with one another. Wanting someone to tell you is wishing for an académie anglaise.

    1. Not quite; someone could say, “you know, most people don’t use ‘whom’ in that situation because it seems affected even though that obviously wasn’t your intention.” Or it could be what DonBoy posted just below. It doesn’t require that sort of formalization, I don’t think.

      1. You know, most people don’t use ‘whom’ in that situation because it seems affected even though that obviously wasn’t your intention.

      2. I see, I didn’t know how to interpret your “wish”. That makes a bit more sense (though I suspect you’d process the comment differently depending on who the someone was, or the rhetoric they used).

  2. I may be misremembering, but I had an intro linguistics class where they prof put up an example like this and asked by show of hands “How many of you say ‘who’ in this situation, and how many say ‘whom’?” After the show of hands, he said: “Those of you who reported that you say ‘whom’: you are wrong. Despite whatever rule you think you know, no native English speakers actually say ‘whom’ in this formation.”

    Now, that seems kind of strong — and I think he was speaking specifically of spoken language, not formal writing — but it’s stuck with me.

    1. That’s an important point. Spoken and written rules should be different, imho. But just to get circular for a minute, if there’s no academie anglaise, how did *he* know?

      1. What he “knew”, I surmise, is that nobody really says “whom,” despite those who claim they would.

        1. I use “whom.” But that seems affected, even though that isn’t my intention.

          And like a lot of people below (and most prescriptive grammarians since time immemorial), I got my affected usage from studying Latin.

      2. Descriptive linguists use a “spoken corpus,” a collection of audio recordings of ordinary native speech. Grammatical rules for a given dialect are inferred by studying the corpus.

        Another method is the interview with a native speaker. The researcher will ask the speaker if such-and-such a sentence sounds right.

        This is particularly useful in studying languages that have no written form.

  3. Diagramming sentences is dead.
    So is the knowledge of the names of the parts, and how they relate, that sentence diagramming imparted.

    The funeral was very very small: I was there, with a handful of other old pedants.

    Chalk and slate, McGuffey’s readers, inkwells, then Pelman cursive …

    1. There have been a number of fairly recent books on diagramming sentences which unfortunately entered the world after my kid had passed the age when I had any hope of force-feeding them.

      I want the grammar books with elves to come back. The was this feeling that children would absorb spelling, vocabulary and grammar by lots of reading. Explicitly teaching the rules seemed unnatural and dull. This probably works for the non-dyslexics but the dyslexic kids do not absorb.

      1. read the comments to any (other) blog and find that the non-dyslexics did not absorb them either. And lots of people don’t do lots of reading, obviously (from the same evidence).

  4. No, not Bo’s fault.

    As a blues lover from Chicago, I must clear up this slam (if slam it be) against Bo.

    The song he sings is a play on “hoodoo,” so, “whom” just wouldn’t work.

    Check out hoodoo on wikipedia:

    “Many blues musicians have referred to hoodoo in their songs. Popular examples include “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues” by Ma Rainey, “Hoodoo Lady Blues” by Arthur Crudup, and “Hoodoo Man Blues” by Junior Wells. In addition to the expected terms “hoodoo” and “mojo”, other conjure words in blues songs include “jinx”, “goofer dust”, “nation sack”, “black cat bone”, “John de conkeroo” (John the Conqueror root), “graveyard dirt”, and “black spider dumplings.”

    The Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love” contains an extensive series of puns about a man hoodooing his lover. He also recorded an album titled Got My Own Bag of Tricks (1972), a reference to a mojo hand or trick bag. In Chuck Berry’s song “Thirty Days” he threatens an ex-lover, telling her that he “…talked to the gypsy woman on the telephone […] she gonna send out a world wide hoodoo…”. Woody Guthrie wrote the lyrics for “Hoodoo Voodoo”, a song later performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg. The song “Born on the Bayou” by Creedence Clearwater Revival has the line “Chasing down a hoodoo there…”. Ike & Tina Turner’s 1963 album It’s Gonna Work out Fine featured a song titled “Mojo Queen”, with definite references to mojo, the magic charms used by hoodoo practitioners.”

    1. H,

      Sounds like you got your mojo workin’.

      Despite that, if you don’t get no consolation you can take it to the United Nations.

    2. Any singer would prefer the nice open “pooh” in “who” to the closed off “whom”.

    3. I’m just sitting here imagining what it would have sounded like if Bo sang “Whom do you love” … Somehow it’s just not the same.

      1. Next I think we should study the grammatical construction of “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?”

  5. I still flinch when people use “less” where I would use “fewer”, but I swing mostly descriptivist these days. I am a tech writer and eLearning developer who always tries to use clear, conversational language, even when it appears to be ungrammatical. I have trained most of my clients not to flinch when I use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, but not even the most grammar-teacher-scarred of them would ever flag “Who do you go to for information on XYZ” as incorrect.

    DonBoy, your prof was brilliant.

    Bruce Byfield has a great article on clear writing and the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide and the poisonous legacy of Lowth here.

    An excerpt: “Writing well, as George Orwell observes in “Politics and the English Language,” “has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax.” If it did, then two centuries of prescriptive grammar in the classroom should have resulted in higher standards of writing. Yet there is no evidence that the language is used more skillfully in 2001 than in 1750. The truth is that, prescriptive grammar and effective use of English have almost no connection. A passage can meet the highest prescriptive standards and still convey little if its thoughts are not clearly expressed or organized. Conversely, a passage can have several grammatical mistakes per line and still be comprehensible and informative. Prescriptive grammars are interesting as a first attempt to approach the subject of language, but today they are as useless to writers as they are to linguists. So long as writers have a basic competence in English, prescriptive grammar is largely a distraction that keeps them from focusing on the needs of their work.”

    1. I agree with much of what you say. My favorite example is the difference between letter writers to the NYT v. the LAT. The NYT writers are all buttoned up and use bigger words. The LAT writers get right to the point, usually faster and more colorfully, which I prefer, though I mostly like having both.

      However, I think we should make sure people know the rules before they break them. Otherwise, I think it will be like Orwell’s 1984 — somewhere along the way, actual content will get lost.

      And I’ve forgotten pretty much all the rules, and wish I hadn’t!

  6. Argh. Too many “and”s. One missing question mark. Probably more errors I haven’t even noticed yet.

    I’ll go hide under the covers with some ginger ice cream now, thanks.

  7. Are there written rules limiting embedded dependent clauses? It is grammatical to say, “The rat ran away.” Ditto for “The rat the cat chased ran away.” Now try “The rat the cat the dog bit chased ran away.” What grammatical rule does it violate, if any?

    1. I hate the quote rules.

      what makes more sense to me:
      Is it grammatical to say “The rat ran away.”?
      Treats the quote item as a single atomic clause.

      Punctuate exactly as if you wrote:
      Is it grammatical to say the phrase in question?

    2. Or my favorite version, based on “This is the house that Jack built.”

      This is the malt the rat the cat the dog the cow the maiden the man the priest the cock the farmer kept woke married kissed milked tossed worried killed ate.

      Sentences like these would be grammatically correct if natural languages were constructed like computer programming languages. This would be the English-language equivalent of an entry to the “Obfuscated C” contest.

  8. Twitter, too, by the way. Prominently featured on the home screen is a column called “Who to follow.” Drives my 16-year-old grammar-Nazi son crazy. The problem is intergenerational in my household but in the other direction than other commenters have observed.

  9. I’m sorry to say this just means you’re getting old.

    Probably the language change that I notice the most isn’t grammatical but in the meaning of the idiom “beg the question” — which to me means to make a circular argument.

  10. Expert discussion here by Geoffrey Pullum on who/whom in sentences of the type ¨He´s the man who/whom everybody thinks will one day be king.¨ Shakespeare preferred whom, Fielding and Dickens who, Boswell couldn´t make up his mind.
    That´s in writing. Accusative who has won in speech, according to me.

      1. English has suffered from too much Latinizing of its grammatical ‘rules’ – but Latin comes to the rescue here – the relative pronoun takes its number and gender from its antecedent and its case from its use in the sentence. The full thought (here a subordinate adjectival clause describing ‘man’) is ‘who will one day be king’. The ‘everybody thinks’ is just an interjection that does not affect the clause.

        Shakespeare is not a good guide – the man who wrote ‘of his bones are coral made’. And usage does evolve, so 18th century writer are no help either.

        It is still possible to be grammatically wrong, but one has to appreciate how English is spoken.

        That said, I shudder to hear ‘lay’ used for ‘lie’, and wrong case pronouns. A New Yorker cartoon spoke for me with the character who complained how hard it was to be a ‘between you and me’ person in a ‘between you and I’ world.

        1. Not just Latinizing, it’s an IE thing… the relative PN in German e.g. has the case and number of the noun to which it refers, and the case demanded by the syntax of the relative clause.

          Is ‘der’ or ‘das’ sweeping all before it in German, putting ‘dem’ and all the other case-gender-number combos to the sword? I don’t see enough German often enough to get a sense for this…

          1. I learned Latin before I learned German, so probably had internalized this (perfectly logical, I would now say) rule and no doubt found it normal in German rather than searching for their common IE root.

            I don’t read much German these days (and even less Latin), but the press I see (daily papers if in German-speaking countries) seems still keen on the ‘dem’s.

            (I wonder if Keith Humphreys would want me to add that only in Broadway musicals is there nothing like a dem…)

  11. I’m having trouble coming up with a sentence where using “whom” eliminates confusion. (The same is true of other object-form pronouns, really – word order does the trick – but people don’t seem to have trouble with those.)

    Help me out if you have one!

    One downside of eliminating “whom” is that the SAT would have to find something else to get all picky about for ~4% of the Writing questions.

    (Yes, I tutor high school students. So the “who/whom” distinction smells like job security to me.)

    1. I saw this somewhere on the Internet, but I can’t find the original link. So no credit to me…

      “The person who/whom God doth love”
      Being strict, the person *who* God doth love would be an awkward phrasing of “The person who doth love God” since “who/whom”, “God” and “doth love” make up the dependent clause here. The person *whom* God doth love has the obvious meaning.

      In the informal case, who/whom is ambiguous.

  12. “Democrats in Congress” wasn’t one of the permitted responses to the polling question? Do you have a link to this poll, I’m not finding it anywhere, and I find it a bit hard to believe Gallup, or any other even vaguely reputable polling organization, would design a poll with such a tendentious selection of allowed responses.

    1. It was a Washington Post/Pew survey, not actually Gallup.
      The WAPO/Pew question, asked after several others, was specifically:

      If an agreement is not reached, who do you think would be more to blame: (the Republicans in Congress) or (President Obama)? (Options randomized)

      I think this is reasonable. The chance that Democrats in Congress (i.e. Reid´s Senate majority) will reject a deal that Obama signs on to is infinitesimal.

      Gallup didn´t ask that perticular question, but did ask one on attitudes to the handling of the crisis by Democratic leaders in Congress. Answers split on straight party lines.

      1. Ah, that would explain why I didn’t find it, looking for Gallup.

        And no, this is not reasonable, though I can see why a Democrat would like to think it. Like it or not, until an actual piece of legislation is sitting on his desk, ready for him to sign, the President is basically an observer. You got the order of events backwards: Agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, THEN the President picks up a pen. He can make suggestions, but it’s all happening in Congress, so Congressional Democrats are every bit as capable of being at fault as Congressional Republicans.

        Hell, maybe they’re at fault for going along with what Obama wants, but that would still be them being at fault.

        So, no, it was NOT a reasonable list of responses. Not remotely. Very bad polling practice, that.

        1. Reid blocks Senate vote on Obama’s deficit-reduction plan

          “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday offered an amendment to force a vote on President Obama’s deficit-reduction plan, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was having none of it.”

          Tell me again how “The chance that Democrats in Congress (i.e. Reid´s Senate majority) will reject a deal that Obama signs on to is infinitesimal.” They’ve done nothing BUT reject every budget he’s proposed. They won’t even bring Obama’s proposals to a vote.

  13. We still need our dying whom to savour Lenin´s pithy question, кто кого? Who, whom?
    Apparently this was an attempt to capture the essence of politics: who does what to whom. Considering the libertarians´ obsession with state coercion over communal cooperation, they would I think agree.

  14. Don’t blame BO. Blame BILL:

    LAUNCE: Can nothing speak? Master, shall I strike?
    PROTEUS: Who wouldst thou strike?
    LAUNCE: Nothing.
    — The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1595.

    BOYET: Now, madam, summon up your dearest spirits,
    Consider who the King your father sends,
    To whom he sends, and what’s his embassy.
    — Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1595

    MACBETH. . . . For certain friends that are both his and mine,
    Whose loves I may not drop, but wail his fall
    Who I myself struck down.
    — Macbeth, 1606

    ALBANY: RUn, run. O, run.
    EDGAR: To who, my lord? Who has the office?
    — King Lear, 1606

    POLONIUS. . . I’ll speak to him again — What do you read, my lord?
    HAMLET: Words, words, words.
    POLONIUS: What is the matter, my lord?
    HAMLET: Between who?
    POLONIUS: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.
    — HAMLET, 1601.

    IAGO: Not this hour, Lieutenant; ’tis not yet ten o’th’clock. Our general cast us thus early for the love of his Desdemona, who let us not therefore blame.
    — OTHELLO, 1605.

    Did the language change when you weren’t looking? Yes, probably because you weren’t around in Shakespeare’s day. “Who” has been used as an object pronoun for centuries. The idea that this is some new development, portending the decay of the English language, just doesn’t hold water.

    (My citations are from Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1989.)

      1. I am sure that one can have a rich, fulfilling and even literary life without ever using ‘whom’. It is probably easiest to use it, i.e. it sounds most natural to do so, when it directly follows a preposition to which it is the object: it came from whom? But even there it sounds a bit stuffy and few people who did not have strong teacher-librarian mothers will care if you say ‘from who’?

        OTOH one might like to keep the possibility or comprehensibility of the (precocious) childhood joke:

        – Knock knock
        – Who’s there?
        – To
        – To who?
        – Don’t you mean ‘to whom?’

        There. That should finish off this thread!

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