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Who and whom.

Matching wine with food

by Annie Wei-Yu Kan

As the neighbourhood vulgarian has foreshadowed, today I will address the question of who and whom.

You will have learned from Dirk that a sentence such as I will serve whom I please is formally correct. You may infer from that that I will serve who I please is not formally correct. But does that mean that it is not to be used at all?

Words such as whom are like fine wines. Some people are very familiar with their use and with how to match them properly with what they’re being served up with. Others are less versed in them and are not naturally comfortable with them.

Some avoid their use. Go to some houses and you will be served water, or beer, or something else, but not wine. Too fancy. And some people simply can’t be bothered ever to use whom or whomever. These words, to them, are just ways of putting on airs.

Some use them in a slapdash manner. They serve any old wine with any old food. You might get a cheap Bordeaux-style blend with a baked salmon, or some cutesy-name blended white with a roast of beef. In writing, we know that some people, when wanting to sound just a little fancy, toss in a whom in place of a who without really knowing what the real point of it is. “And whom is calling?” Formal English is a foreign language to them.

Then there are those who are snobbish about it without knowing well enough what they’re talking about. In wines, they are the ones who will look down their noses at you for serving a pinot noir with turkey because turkey is white meat and must have a white wine. They will insist on always having “fine” wine with whatever they eat. The real wine experts know that weight and acidity and specific flavour matches matter more than colour. And they know that sometimes wine is not the right beverage for the occasion.

The snobs of words will insist on using whom wherever it is standing for the object, but they can be relied on to get it wrong every so often. This is because they are not really motivated by consistent syntax. They are motivated by not wanting to sound like “those low-grade louts who don’t know how to use proper English.”

They cast that role simplistically: guilt by association, innocence by contrast. They know that “uneducated louts” say things like

Us beer drinkers can serve whoever we want.

They see that the louts use the object form of personal pronouns (us, him, me) in too many places, and that they use the subject form of relative pronouns (who, whoever) in too many places. So, to avoid being taken for part of that tribe, they overuse the opposites. They may even say things like

Whomever wishes to dine well may join we wine drinkers.

I hope you noticed the two infractions of the formal rules in that sentence. It has the dual faults of sounding stilted and not following the rules of stiltedness correctly.

Or they may make smaller and fewer errors, but slip up with, for instance,

Why should I take the word of she who starts sentences with conjunctions?

I hope you noticed that the subject of the relative clause is who, not she. The complement of of is, or should be, her. Prepositions take objects, not subjects, as complements. So it’s

the word of her

and you explain which her you mean with

who starts sentences with conjunctions

Or they may make this one:

Whom shall I say is calling?

Obviously the subject-verb matches are I shall and who is. The shall I say is inserted into the main clause. I’m sure you noticed that. If not, now you know.

But their main fault is not little slips like that, which can happen even to the best of them. Sometimes you need to be formal, after all, and formal English is rarely a first language for anyone.

No, as silly as it may be – to those who notice it – to serve a badly matched wine on the basis of colour dogmatism, it’s even sillier to try to bring a bottle of Lafite or Margaux into McDonald’s. And if you’re serving up good southern barbecue in a good southern barbecue restaurant, you are making a mistake if you are puzzling over whether that pork with its barbecue sauce matches a zinfandel or a gewürztraminer. Beer, dear child. Beer is what is expected. Or sour mash whiskey.

I’m just assuming here that you’re writing with the aim of its being read by other people. If you’re writing for yourself and only yourself, you can produce whatever strange match-ups you want. The disgusting and the elegant, the sublime and the ridiculous? I’ve been part of such a match-up. If you are choosing your own suffering, go ahead. If you are inflicting it on others, you will want to make sure that they will like it.

Ew. That was not meant as a reference to or condonement of certain people’s sick leather fantasies.

In normal dining, we do not break out the top-drawer wines – or, usually, even any wine – with every sandwich and every biscuit. You expect no pinot grigio with your cold-cut twelve-incher from Subway. No Château d’Yquem with your Peek Freans. And in normal English, we are very sparing with whom. Ordinary English uses who as both subject and object:

Who do you want to invite?

Whoever you would like.

How about that person who you were talking to yesterday?

Watch that last sentence. If we change it to formal English, not one but two things happen, and they have to happen together:

How about that person to whom you were talking yesterday?

Do you see? You wouldn’t say to who you were talking and you probably wouldn’t say whom you were talking to. You have switched from a family restaurant to fancy dining, and several things change. Know your menu.

If you think that it is always wrong to use who where the formal standard is whom, you are saying that most people, including many revered writers, use their language wrong most of the time. You are saying that what is natural and intuitive in most situations is simply wrong.

You are a dreary, dreary person who shows up at McDonald’s in a tuxedo and asks for the wine list.

I’m going to keep saying this. There’s always someone who needs to be told again. Just pay attention to the kind of English your occasion demands. There are more kinds of English than there are kinds of food. It varies according to situation, degree of formality, relationship, and what you want the other person to do.

You can serve who you please, but can you please who you serve?

You may serve whom you please, but can you please whom you serve?

You do know that every time you write something, you’re doing it to produce an effect on a reader or readers, right? An effect means cause a certain response. Think about who’s eating your words. Or you may have to eat them yourself.

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