On which vs that and who vs whom

At one time I worked as a newspaper sub-editor. The job’s occupational hazards included getting involved in conversations about the correctness of certain kinds of punctuation, the usage of which vs that and who vs whom, and devilish subjects like the subjunctive mood and whether or not ‘internet’ should take a capital I.

Those conversations are mercifully rare in my life today but I still find myself drawn to old-school style books in second-hand stores and conversations about language playing out online. A few links are collected here.

The Oatmeal has a lovely poster on the subject of who vs whom.

The Oatmeal's Who and Whom

Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker talks about who vs whom in his book The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

In most cases, even if correctly used, whom can indeed sound “formal verging on pompous.” Though they seem straightforward enough, “the rules for its proper use,” writes Pinker, “are obscure to many speakers, tempting them to drop ‘whom’ into their speech whenever they want to sound posh,” and to generally use the word incorrectly.

Despite “a century of nagging by prescriptive grammarians,” the distinction between “who” and “whom” seems anything but simple, and so one’s use of it—as with any tricky word or usage—should be carefully calibrated “to the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality” the writing calls for.

Put plainly, know how you’re using “whom” and why, or stick with the unobjectionable “who.”

Pinker spoke to Kim Hill on Radio NZ about writing and style.

Stephen Fry argues against grammar nazis and for enjoying language and rolling with its changes.