From The Sunday Telegraph, 24 March: As long as we still make sense, we should rejoice at the death of some English words
A few weeks ago, while playing football, a team-mate tried to organise us before our opponents took a free kick. “Who’s marking who?” he shouted. And, being the good journalist that I am, I leant over, tapped him on the shoulder, and said: “Ahem. Who’s marking whom.” I didn’t get invited back for weeks.
It was with enormous relief, then, that I read in The Atlantic magazine this week that the zombie word “whom” is finally dying, and I can at last shout “Who’s on who?” with the rest of the team. It’s been on the decline since the mid-1820s, apparently, but its fall has become precipitous in recent decades; the internet may have hastened it, but writing has been becoming more conversational for a long time, and “whom” is just too stuffy, too formal, to survive.
Sometimes, as the language changes, it’s forgivable to feel a little sad. As a philosophy graduate, I still wince a little when someone says “That begs the question…” and then asks an actual question. “That’s not what it means!” I harrumph. “It means to assume your conclusion in your premise.” And, yes, I know “literally” has sometimes been used to mean “really” since Dickens, but still, a football commentator saying that a player is “literally on fire” makes me shudder. We are allowed to feel protective of the words we love, even if it’s silly.
“Whom”, on the other hand, should die unmourned. The usual claim is that these changes somehow make us unable to express concepts, that language will steadily devolve into an incomprehensible soup of noise. People who make this argument rarely explain how, 600 years after Chaucer, English is as powerful a tool of communication as ever. Perhaps there is occasional confusion over the (not very) new meaning of “literally”, but no one, in the history of English, has ever misunderstood a sentence because someone said “who” instead of “whom”. My football episode illustrates the point: “Who’s on who?” is exactly as clear as “Who’s on whom?” – and significantly less pompous. “Who do you want to speak to?” makes perfect sense (with preposition proudly sitting at the end of the sentence), even if amateur grammarians might prefer “To whom do you wish to speak?”
No doubt a few people will be appalled at the idea of giving up the “whom” fight; perhaps the same people who will go to barricades over the imagined inviolability of the infinitive. “I don’t care if it makes sense, it’s still not correct English,” they will say. But what defines “correct English”, if not the way English is used? If there’s some perfect Platonic form of the language floating through the ether – sounding like a voiceover from a 1944 Pathé newsreel, I expect – I’ve yet to find it. To whom it may concern: we no longer need be concerned about “whom”. Let us rejoice.
• It’s been an interesting week in space. First we learned that the probe Voyager I had left the solar system, again, then that it actually hadn’t quite, again. Next, the European Space Agency released a picture, taken by the Planck telescope, of the oldest light in the universe: microwave echoes of the Big Bang.
It reminded me of the story of how this “Cosmic Microwave Background” was first discovered. After the War, astrophysics was divided into two camps: the “Steady Staters”, who thought the universe had always existed, and the “Big Bangers”, who thought it had come into existence some number of billions of years ago. Those in the latter camp, like the physicist Robert Dicke, suggested that if there had been a Big Bang, it would have left these radiation traces. But no one could find them.
Two decades later, two researchers in New Jersey’s Bell Laboratory found that their radio antenna was picking up an inexplicable hiss. They couldn’t get rid of it: they cooled their equipment with liquid helium, they shielded it, they went and cleared out pigeons that were nesting in the dish, in case their droppings were causing the noise. Until Dicke and his team heard of the result and came to investigate, the Bell physicists never worked out that what they thought was bird poo was, in fact, the sound of the Big Bang.