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Words, Jan. 31



“The Arkansas Blog is running a contest. Fifty dollars goes to whomever comes closest to predicting the percentage votes in the Arkansas primary Feb. 5 for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.”

Irv West writes:

“People seem so mystified as to whether to use ‘who' or ‘whom' that they almost always get it wrong. … What probably happened here is that the writer saw ‘to' and thought ‘Aha! A preposition, which takes the objective case,' not noticing that the object of the preposition is not just the pronoun but the entire ensuing dependent clause, of which the pronoun is the subject (‘whoever'), not the object.

“I admit that my own grasp of this type of construction was not entirely clear until I'd begun Latin studies in the eighth grade. Suddenly, many of the rules of English and diagramming I'd previously regarded as arcane and arbitrary became crystal clear. It's too bad the study of languages is no longer treated as a path to understanding English.”

Interesting point. Though I sometimes make a stab at answering grammatical questions, I'm not a grammarian, as the real grammarians point out to me from time to time. And Lord knows I'm grateful. The late Justice George Rose Smith was particularly conscientious in this regard. He once wrote me that whereas we'd both ceased studying English grammar after the eighth-grade sentence diagramming, he'd gone on to study Latin, and that was where he gained an understanding of grammar superior to mine.

But in the case of who and whom, I generally don't worry about it. I tend to agree with those who recommend using who exclusively, except in constructions like “to whom it may concern.” Getting who and whom correct is not always easy. A person can spend more time choosing than the choice is worth, and still get it wrong. And these days, whom often seems stilted even when technically correct. The usage authority Archie Goodwin advised Nero Wolfe to ditch the whom, but Wolfe was not much of one to take advice.

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