George Orwell, in “Politics and the English Language,” denounced lazy, sloppy and pretentious writing and speaking as a sign of unclear thinking (photo source). I so much believe that thought, that I extend it into grammar. On the fridge I have a magnet, kindly donated by a friend, that reads “I am mentally correcting your grammar.” It is just so hard (though I like to think I’ve learned) not to wince when someone says “Just between you and I” or “Him and me went together.”
This may seem trivial but it has been tormenting me for years: The New York Times seems unaware how to use “who/whom” and “whoever/whomever.” Their regular lapses do not impress me with the acuity of the nation’s self-appointed newspaper of record. A couple of years ago I wrote them to complain, but they didn’t answer and if anything, their grammatical performance has declined since then,
I contrast that with our own Chester County newspaper of record, the Daily Local News, which I wrote about 10 years ago on the topic. I later learned from one of the reporters that they had copied my little grammar lesson and taped it to writers’ computers! And really, DLN has gotten it right ever since! Yes, let’s support responsive local journalism!
Here’s the example that put me over the edge. Are there more important political topics today than Biden’s experiences paired against Sarah Palin in the 2008 campaign and his impending choice of a 2020 female running mate? How many editors do you suppose checked over that front-page story? They probably worked it over in an editorial staff meeting. And none of them knew how to use “who” and “whom”? And no one knew to fix it online 4 days later? Pathetic!
From “Joe Biden’s Time in Sarah Palin’s Shadow,” 5/11/20:
“It is not lost on Mr. Biden that whomever he chooses might well be elected the nation’s first female president after his turn, or at least become a new front-runner for the distinction.”
So what’s the problem? Every verb needs an explicit or implicit subject. What is the subject of “might well be elected”? Can it be “whomever…”? No, it can’t. “Whom/ever” is an object, not a subject. Correct English is “whoever he chooses might….”
With “who/m/ever” issues, if in doubt, rephrase with the more familiar “he/him” or “she/her”: “Her, the one he chooses, might…”? No, “She … might…”
The other construction frequently mangled by the New York Times is with a verb of opinion like “believe.” I’m just making this example up (though I have a pile of real examples on my desk): “Elizabeth Warren, whom many believe is the strongest choice, might make a real difference in the campaign.” Right? No, wrong. The subject of “is the strongest choice” needs to be “who,” not “whom.” (Think of “many believe” as being in parentheses.)
Writers in this case are easily led astray by the type “Warren, whom many believe when she speaks about bankruptcy, might…” In the earlier quotation, people don’t believe Warren, they believe that she is the strongest choice.
Got that, New York Times? Come on, if you can report from the four corners of the globe, you can figure out the difference between “who” and “whom”!