Monday, May 24, 2010

All The Whos in Whomville

My guilty pleasure these last couple of days has been reading Scott Turow's sequel to Presumed Innocent. The new book, Innocent, bounces back and forth in time, with the chapters alternating among the perspectives of different narrators--a gimmick I would normally find annoying, but it seems to work here.

On Page 20, we get this call-back to the first novel:

Twenty-two years later, the name of the chief judge of the court of appeals, who Tommy had unsuccessfully prosecuted for murdering a female colleague of theirs, still coursed through him like the current after the insertion of a plug.
Thank you, Basil Exposition. But now we have to get into the dreaded who/whom discussion--a grammatical sub-genre in itself, the contemplation of which has been known to cause testicular cancer in rats.

To put it in overly-simplistic terms: We are obliged to use who when we're talking about the subject of a preposition or verb (the person doing the doing) and whom with an object (the person being done to). A neat trick that works in most instances is to substitute he or him. You may have to move the words around a bit, but if he fits, you're dealing with a subject; if him is the obvious choice, you've got an object on your hands and whom is the way to go. In the sentence above, Tommy is doing the doing (prosecuting) which makes him the subject. And we know we wouldn't say "Tommy had unsuccessfully prosecuted he." That means the chief judge is the object and it should be whom.

Granted, it's not always that simple. On Page 64, for instance, I came across this sentence, which caused my brain to spin in its cranial cavity for a moment:
What is wrong with a woman, whom in almost every other regard I know to be gifted and refreshingly sane, that she would be interested in someone nearly twice her age, let alone married?
At first I thought that sounded wrong--that since she is gifted and sane it should be the subjective who. But eventually I came to realize that he knows her to be these things, so the objective case is correct. I think. I read it over a few times, then I poured another drink and pushed forward.

I didn't have to go far, however, before I came to an arresting example of how you sometimes have to disregard these rules entirely--when being wrong is the right thing to do. Further on in the paragraph comes this:
But I will probably never understand the secret part of her she hopes I might fill in. Who she wants to be in the law? Who she wishes her father was?
Using the rules outlined above, shouldn't it be "Whom she wants to be...?" and "Whom she wishes her father was?" Yes and no. Let's give the last word to legendary humorist James Thurber:
The number of people who use "who" and "whom" wrong is appalling. Take the common expression, "Whom are you, anyways?" That is, of course, strictly speaking, correct--and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is "Who are you, anyways?" "Whom" should be used only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a "Whom are you, anyways?" rather than a "Who are you, anyways?" --always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a "Whom are you?" is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance.