Thursday, October 22, 2009

Whom Can We Rely On, New York Times?

In this New York Times grammar quiz, the failure to use "whom" is actually counted as an error of sorts in the question 7 in the passage: "If we can’t rely on the marketers or the government or even the nutritionists to guide us through the supermarket woods, then who can we rely on?"

The reason, the Times says, is that: "If the correct grammar — in this case, 'whom' — sounds stuffy, we should try to find a deft way to rephrase a sentence to make it both fluid and correct."

The key word is "try," which means it's not mandatory, which means the sentence is fine as-is.

The only alternative would be to consider "to rely on" off limits in interrogative uses like this.


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Heather said...

"If we can’t rely on the marketers or the government or even the nutritionists to guide us through the supermarket woods, then who can we rely on?"

then upon whom can we rely? Isn't that the correct way?

Love your blog! I have you in my rss reader so I read each post as it appears. Keep up the good work!

June Casagrande said...

When it comes to language, "correct" is such a loaded term. Wily, too.

"Upon whom we can rely" would be the most proper from the perspective of many traditionalists. But the most traditional sources I know of also allow "who" in place of "whom" when it's the first word in a clause, like, "Who do love?" and they also allow prepositions at the ends of sentences. "A man we can rely on."

So while, "Upon whom we can rely" is best choice when writing term papers that will be graded by anyone schooled in the 1950s, the alternatives like "who we can rely on" are okay, too.

(Fudged answer, I know. Let me know if I need to try again.)

Thanks for the kind words!

- June

BrianE424 said...

Congratulations on researching and writing a fascinating blog. You explore nooks and crannies of language I either haven't thought about in a long time or never have at all. I came across Conjugate Visits while surfing because I was confused by a comment that included both "who" and "whom" in the same sentence! This comment was in a local blog here in Davis Calif., the People's Vanguard. The comment goes like this (verbatim):
“The Target [store] campaign focused a lot of its voter outreach to UC Davis students, including directly passing out campaign flyers on campus, and sending mailers to campus, and sending mailers to students, many of whom who voted Yes to Target have left town since its passage, does this sound at all familiar to you with the current Yes on P campaign???”

Breathtakingly ungrammatical, but I was wondering about the "...whom who..." juxtaposition? It sounds right in that part of the sentence, but can it be, grammatically?
Thanks, Brian

June Casagrande said...

That is so weird! If I were a computer, I'd be blowing up right now.

Gathering my thoughts ... The obvious problem with this sentence, as you know, is that the sentence works without the "who." From there, it's a good guess that it's ungrammatical. So we could leave it at that. But, if we dare to take it a step further, here's what I think we'd find.

In the clause "many of whom voted," "many" is a subject. It's performing the action in "voted." (The "of whom" part is just a prepositional phrase serving to modify the pronoun and true subject: "many.")

In the relative clause, "who voted," it's the "who" that's doing the voting.

Therefore, it seems that the root problem here is that we have just one verb but two different pronouns competing to be the subject of that verb. (That's fine with coordinated subjects, like "Joe and Dawn voted." But "many" and "who" aren't joined this way.)

SO, unless I'm mistaken, this sentence is ungrammatical for that reason.

CAN a "whom who" construction be grammatical? I don't know. I can't think of an example, but that could be lack of imagination on my part.

I wonder if the passage occurred as the result of an edit. That happens a lot in my world. You're rewriting the second part of a sentence and forgot what the first part says. I end up with a lot of extra prepositions that way. "He wrote with the clock ticking toward midnight" I'll go to rewrite as "He wrote as the clock ticked toward midnight." But I'll goof and make it "He wrote with as the clock ticked toward midnight."

Okay, I'm rambling now. Let me know if I failed to answer your question and I'll try to be smarter.

: )

(And thanks for the blog props.)

BrianE424 said...

Thank goodness you're not a computer. I doubt you could do much rambling then.
That's quite an exotic sentence-specimen to come out of boring ol' Davis, eh? (a popular bumpersticker you see around town occasionally: "Keep Davis Boring!") Actually, I just counted and it contains no less than 61 words (if P counts), as punctuated.

I can see it could be the guy went back and revised and that resulted in the who whom neighboring. Without the who: "...many of whom voted Yes to Target and then left town." (another clue this sentence isn't the result of incomplete revising: all the weird "to"s sprinkled throughout)

But, if I read you correctly, whom is not the object of the verb? I'm relying on the old standby: "To Whom It May Concern" to be able to say that. I seem to remember where if you could use the pronoun "him" you can use "whom" because "him" is an object pronoun? And you're supposed to remember that because they rhyme. Sorry I don't know the precise names for these grammatical creatures. I didn't know "of whom" could be a prepositional phrase just modifying, like a sort of decoration. Whom does have that sort of snooty reputation which is maybe what the commenter on the Vanguard was trying to slip in there? But are the "of whom" students the ones who voted and left town? Who, then, are the "many" and what did they do?

Of course, this intriguingly unique baroque construction (did you ever see a "who" right next to a "whom" before? I never did) could be straightened out if cut up into little punchy sentences...

June Casagrande said...

Yes! "Whom," like "him," is an object pronoun. But an object pronoun is the object of a verb OR the object of a preposition.

"to him"
"with him"
"from him"
"at him"

(instead of "to he," "with he," "from he," and "at he")

So in: "You married whom?" "whom" is the object of the verb. But in "You danced with whom?" it's the object of the preposition "with."

A prepositional phrase is a preposition and its object: "at whom."

When I used the word "modifying," I used it kind of loosely. Prepositional phrases are usually seen as modifiers when they add description to a noun or pronoun. In "The man with the golden gun," the prepositional phrase is modifying "man." But when it follows a verb, "He dances with enthusiasm," it's often called an adjunct.

Sorry if that was more than you wanted to know.

And, no, I'd never seen "whom who" paired up that way before.

Re "computer," I meant to say "If I were a robot." But that would be silly, because if I were a robot, surely I'd be upgraded with paradox- and illogic-absorbing crumple zones by now.

BrianE424 said...

Oh, yeah, like Herb Caen, who used to refer to himself as "The Ramblin' Wreck." Sometimes if he had a couple of inches left to fill in his SF Chronicle column, he'd enlighten readers with "Things I learned en route to looking up other things." I always liked that "en route." Seems more of an adventure than "surfing."
He had plenty of great gimmicks. The "Apostrophe Posse" comes to mind. A posse of observant readers on the lookout around town for misplaced apostrophes on billboards (an apostrophe as big as a Labrador retriever, misplaced? Could be trouble.), signs etc.

June Casagrande said...

I'm sorry I missed the bulk of his work. Sounds really good.


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