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The bell tolls for ‘whom’

Sorry, sticklers: Hallmark drives another nail in the coffin of a dying pronoun.

In "I Married Who," a straight-laced bride-to-be (Kellie Martin) quickly learns that what happens in Vegas does not always stay in Vegas after she inadvertently marries a movie star (Ethan Erickson) during her bachelorette party.


Many well-known songs and phrases use the incorrect “who,” but who could argue in favor of these grammar fixes?

  • “Whom Do You Love?” — Bo Diddley (and George Thorogood)

  • “Two, four, six, eight, whom do we appreciate?”

  • “Who Made Whom?” — AC/DC

  • “Who’s Zoomin’ Whom?” — Aretha Franklin

  • “Whom you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” — Chico Marx (impersonating Groucho in “Duck Soup”)

  • “Whom ya gonna call? Ghostbusters!” — Ray Parker Jr.

The Kansas City Star

To whom it may concern: We’re not all that concerned with the proper use of “who” and “whom” anymore.

Oh sure, it was important to Ernest Hemmingway when he wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls” more than 70 years ago. We still teach “whom” in high school and use it as a salutation in letters to unknown recipients. And we might drop an “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” misquote of a John Donne poem into casual conversation.

But, you know, whom really cares, right?

In the world of Twitter and texting, “whom” is archaic, a grammatical anachronism. Even the Hallmark Channel, a division of the Kansas City company that made its fortune with words, is giving up. Hallmark is promoting the Oct. 20 premiere of an original movie called “I Married Who?”

It should be “I Married Whom?” The Hallmark Channel knows this. It just doesn’t care. There’s a good reason.

“I Married Whom?” sounds stupid. It’s not colloquial. It’s not — natural.

Cut to preposterous movie scene:

(A knock comes at the door.)

“Who is it?”

“It is I, Reginald. Thou truly wast in thy cups last night, Catherine, but didst thou realizeth thou wedded the court jester?”

“Zounds! I married whom?”

See? Stupid. Or at least cringingly British.

Michelle Vicary, the Hallmark Channel’s executive vice president of programming, said the title for “I Married Who?” needed to be fun, conversational and “relatable” to reflect the movie’s contemporary story, about a bride to be, a Vegas bachelorette party and an inadvertent marriage to a movie star.

Make it too stilted and nobody watches. In other words, ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for “whom.”

It’s a grammatical death knell.

You certainly won’t find “whom” on many, if any, Hallmark cards.

“Greeting cards are about what people want to say to each other, so they have to reflect what’s going on in the culture and the language,” said spokeswoman Linda Odell.

Even some grammarians understand that “whom” is dying. One wrote the following on the Language Log blog:

“Whom is like some strange object — a krummhorn, a unicycle, a wax cylinder recorder — found in Grandpa’s attic. People don’t want to throw it out, but neither do they know what to do with it.”

Well, some do.

Kevin Day still teaches the proper usage of “who” and “whom” in his International Baccalaureate English classes at Sumner Academy in Kansas City, Kan.

But, come on, Kev. Does it really matter?

“I think it’s a matter of knowing your audience,” he said. “In informal speech a lot of us — even English teachers — lapse into all sorts of informalities. But when you’re writing an essay for a professor or an article for publication, it behooves you to follow every rule that you can. Because of the nature of your audience, those people are going to be judging you for every little punctuation mark and every grammatical mistake.”

Who knew?

But even Day acknowledges that “whom” is whistling past the grammar graveyard.

“It’s likely that eventually it will die out,” he said. “And is the world going to be changed? Probably not, aside from the Earth’s rotation being affected from English teachers spinning in their graves.”

Why is “whom” dying? Beyond sounding stuffy, it’s hard for many to understand when to use it.

Here’s the general rule: Use “who” when it is the subject of a sentence or clause — the one taking the action, as in “Who loves you?” Use “whom” when it is the object of a sentence or clause — the recipient of the action, as in “Whom do you love?”

Got it?


See the problem?

North Kansas City construction worker Chris Conrad does. The 26-year-old echoed the sentiments of many on the street when he said, “Don’t like it it, don’t use it, don’t understand it. And I don’t want to sound stupid, but I have a lot more important objects to worry about right now.”

While Overland Park marketing manager Caitlin Miller wasn’t hostile to grammar, she didn’t have much use for “whom” either.

“Look, you have to have some grammar rules,” she said. “Take ‘I’ and ‘me.’ We can’t have people going around saying ‘Me hungry. Me want a sandwich.’ They’d sound like a caveman. But with ‘who’ and ‘whom’ there’s not that much of a difference. I don’t think you sound stupid if you say ‘to who it may concern.’ So, I can live without it.”

So can many on message boards.

“Whom no longer has much of a place in our language,” wrote a poster named Sulkdodds. “It’s an inflectional hangover. … It is only ever insisted on when preceded by a preposition — ‘to whom,’ ‘for whom’ and so on. But even this usage is bound up with the traditional ban on ending a sentence with a preposition, and that rule is an invention of 18th century grammarians imposing the rules of Latin onto English; it is, to paraphrase Churchill, the sort of nonsense up with which we need not put.”

Jennifer Frangos, assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, knows “whom” is facing an uphill battle.

“Yes, it may get to the point where nobody remembers the rules or why the distinctions are important,” she said. “But until then, it’s incumbent upon those of us for whom the distinctions are important to continue to raise the issues.”

To reach The Star’s James A. Fussell, send email to jfussell@kcstar.com.


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