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TWTS: To whom who are concerned about “who” vs. “whom”

There are some language questions that turn up in our inbox again and again, including some we’ve already addressed on the show. There are those that deserve a revisit though, as is the case with “who” and “whom.”

During our segment on “exploitative” a few weeks back, Professor Anne Curzan mentioned that the topic was brought to her attention “by a graduate student who I work with.”

A keen-eared listener pointed out to us that in this instance, Curzan should’ve used “whom,” not “who.” That got us thinking about why Curzan, an English professor, was inclined to say “who.”

Historically, the “who/whom” distinction comes down to subject position and object position. “Who” would be the subject, while “whom” could be the direct object, the indirect object, or the object of a preposition.

In the example our listener pointed out, the graduate student is the object of the preposition “with.” So yes, formally speaking, Curzan should’ve used “whom” in reference to the graduate student.

However, that just didn’t feel right to her.

“I think that had I actually said on the radio ‘by a graduate student whom I work with,’ that would’ve sounded very formal and perhaps even a bit highfalutin,” Curzan says.

The truth is, the distinction between “who” and “whom” is collapsing and has been for hundreds of years. It wouldn’t be the first one to go. “You” used to have a subject/object distinction, but now it functions as both.

Curzan says it’s amazing that “whom” has held on for so long.

“We’ve propped up ‘whom’ to the point where it’s still there, but now it’s to the point where it feels very formal,” Curzan says. “Not everyone will want to use it in more colloquial contexts.”

Another astute listener later pointed out to us that in addition to using “who” instead of “whom,” Curzan ended her sentence about the graduate student with a preposition, but that’s a story for another time.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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