‘Do you see whom I see?’

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style
Don’t listen to these people

We’re running a grammar quiz online at the moment, and it’s upsetting a lot of people who aren’t scoring as highly as they’d like. I’m grumpy about it as well because I got a couple of them wrong. But its very first question (which I actually got “right”, I feel I have to point out, defensively) is, itself, wrong, in an informative way.

The question is: Which of these sentences is grammatically correct? A) “Do you see who I see?” or B) “Do you see whom I see?”

Now, the amateur grammarians among us can see what’s going on. “Who I see” or (“whom I see”) is acting as the object of the verb “to see”. According to the Strunk & White-type grammar prescriptivists, you should use “whom” instead of “who” when it is acting as the object of a verb, analogously to using “him” instead of “he”, or “me” instead of “I”.

But no English-speaking human being in the last five decades has said “do you see whom I see?” It is bizarre, affected English. Looking at Google Ngrams for the phrases “Do you see whom” and “Do you see who”, the latter has been dozens of times more common since the two terms first appear in 1830. At no stage in history, it seems, has “Do you see whom I see?” been the standard usage.

Ah, but that doesn’t matter, say the prescriptivists. The rules are the rules, and they are cast in stone. Well, not really. The rules are not cast in stone, they’re the product of usage, and the “who/whom” distinction has been dying for at least three quarters of a century: James Thurber satirically asked whether anyone would say “Whom are you, anyways?” back in 1929. Now, as Language Log pointed out a while ago, even the last redoubt of “whom”, after a preposition (“under whom I studied”, “on whom I rely”), is dying out among younger English speakers. You don’t get to claim your version of English is correct if you’re the only one who uses it.

But still, there is a small core of grammar warriors for whom (sorry) the subject/object who/whom distinction is vital. The question is not, then, “Which of these sentences is grammatically correct?” but rather “If someone is asking you which of these sentences is grammatically correct, which – given that they are almost certainly a Strunk & White prescriptivist – will they think is correct?” If you read the question like that, the answer is undoubtedly B).

It’s still important to know what subjects and objects are, and what a preposition is, and so on, if you want to talk about grammar. But “good grammar” does not involve forcing yourself to speak like a 1950s parody because it sounds fancier. As I’ve written before, “whom” is dying, perhaps dead, and I don’t think we need to mourn it.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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