Wednesday, November 26, 2008


To whom it may concern...

...or “Hyper-whoming in attempted correctitude.”

Last weekend, Brooke Gladstone, on the radio program On the Media, said this:

The more researchers you have, the better results you’re likely to get. That’s why Netflix offered a million dollar prize to whomever can figure out how to improve by 10 percent the software that makes movie recommendations to Netflix customers.

There’s a grammatical error there, but I wasn’t going to blog about until I read what Cory Doctorow wrote in this BoingBoing entry:

I hope that whomever left this working piano in the woods of Harwich, Massachusetts was planning on coming back every night and beating the hell out of the keys with some kind of all-night swing session, playing and playing as the piano deteriorated through the fall and winter, going mushier and wetter, until all that would come out of it was its own funeral march.

Mr Doctorow’s error is more obvious: his use of “whomever” is clearly wrong. “Whomever” is properly used as an object. “Whoever” is used as a subject. It’s not hard to see that in this case, “[pronoun] left this working piano in the woods of Harwich, Massachusetts,” we’re looking at the subject of the verb “left”, and the pronoun should be “whoever”. The “I hope that” part shouldn’t fool us at all. (His sentence needs a comma after “Massachusetts”, as well, but who’s counting?)

Ms Gladstone’s error appears in a situation that’s more common and less obvious, but it’s really the same error. At first glance it looks like “whomever” is the object of the preposition “to” in “Netflix offered a prize to [pronoun].” If that were true, “whomever” would be correct.

The problem, and what makes this a difficult situation, is that we can’t just snap the pronoun off by itself. The full object, the full explanation of the target of the prize, is “[pronoun] can figure out how to improve the software.” The whole clause acts as the object, and it, too, has its own structure.

When we break down that clause’s internal structure, we can see that the pronoun is its subject — we’d say “He [not him] can figure out [...]” — and so it must be “whoever”. The correct sentence is “That’s why Netflix offered a million dollar prize to whoever can figure out how to improve by 10 percent the software that makes movie recommendations to Netflix customers.”

In this case, the “Netflix offered a prize to” part does fool us, because we forget that clauses have their own structure and that we have to do recursive parsing to get this stuff right.

American Heritage Dictionary — my favourite because of its extensive usage notes — has a wonderful usage note in the entry for who. The portion of it that’s significant here says this (emphasis mine):

Considerable effort and attention are required to apply the rules correctly in complicated sentences. To produce correctly a sentence such as “I met the man whom the government had tried to get France to extradite,” we must anticipate when we write “whom” that it will function as the object of the verb “extradite”, several clauses distant from it. It is thus not surprising that writers from Shakespeare onward should often have interchanged “who” and “whom”. And although the distinction shows no signs of disappearing in formal style, strict adherence to the rules in informal discourse might be taken as evidence that the speaker or writer is paying undue attention to the form of what is said, possibly at the expense of its substance. In speech and informal writing “who” tends to predominate over “whom”; a sentence such as “Who did John say he was going to support?” will be regarded as quite natural, if strictly incorrect. By contrast, the use of “whom” where “who” would be required, as in “Whom shall I say is calling?” may be thought to betray a certain linguistic insecurity.

Undue attention to the form, possibly at the expense of its substance. Put another way, I recommend that one use “whom” only when one is absolutely certain it’s correct. Otherwise, other than in certain standard phrases (such as this entry’s title), “who” will look fine, and few will ever consider it incorrect even when it technically is. “Whom” usually makes the sentence look affected or awkward, at least to some extent, so one had better be right when doing that. To write an awkward sentence that’s also incorrect can make one seem pretty silly.

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