Sunday, April 15, 2012

“For Who [sic] the Bell Tolls”: Who-Whom and the native-speaker dogma in descriptivist linguistics

Usage of "whom" instead of "who" for grammatical objects is declining in written communication and has almost vanished from oral communication. Should writers continue using "whom"?
The Writing Virtues framework provides standards for assessing this disputed issue, which concerns Clarity. Warranting use until it has become so rare its presence distracts, each semantic and syntactic distinction the language affords can help readers grasp the writer’s intention precisely and quickly. Sentences with whom for grammatical objects are more cognitively fluent than sentences with whom replaced by who: the distinction informs the reader earlier of the word’s grammatical role. Whom isn’t distracting in legal writing, and unless the m receives butler-like stress, it’s not distracting even in ordinary talk. Writers cripple themselves when they abandon a distinction that’s neither redundant nor distracting.

The dispute on the fate of whom and the best practices concerning its use arose when Twitter announced a feature called “Who to follow." Not being a reader or writer of Tweets, I abstain on whether Twitter ought call it “Whom to follow,” but I contest some of the claims made by descriptivist linguists, who would prematurely erase whom from the lexicon. The key issue in this debate should be Clarity, but neither side realized it; none related usage to the cognitive-fluency research, which demonstrates that modest changes in reading ease produce dramatic effects on retention and persuasiveness.

Besides possible ignorance about the cognitive-fluency research, whom’s antagonists seem biased against whom due to how they classify it. They treat the who-whom rule as what I call a hyper-grammatical rule; in fact, they’ve applied the term. But hyper-grammatical rules—such as the rules not to start a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition—are Formalities, whose occasionally necessary observance muddies the message, whereas whom clarifies it by marking a syntactic distinction.

Their discussion of this point reveals a certain dogma among descriptivist linguists. Because whom is used rarely in speech, writers must sometimes expend a moment thinking about which form to use; but the descriptivists claim that native speakers intuitively know their language’s grammar. This descriptivist contention is unpersuasive because many grammatical distinctions sometimes require a moment’s thought. The similar distinction between I and me fails to be entirely intuitive, although—unlike who-whom—it’s still common in talk. And a verb’s number can be unintuitive, so writers may err on subject-verb agreement.

Descriptivists commonly offer a compromise: only use whom after a preposition. The compromise illustrates the neglect of Clarity: when used after a preposition, the whom form informs less than it does when the preposition ends the sentence. If the main complaint about whom is that it makes writers self-conscious, then the best solution for writers could be always using whom in the conventional manner, as inconsistency induces hesitation. Writers of German or other highly inflected languages don’t hesitate in speaking their language’s pronoun forms.

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