In today’s [1 October 2012] “Johnson”, the excellent blog about the English language in The Economist, the correspondent writes that his four-year-old daughter queried why his wife had used the word “whom” rather than “who” (see the article at http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/10/grammar?fsrc=nlw|newe|10-1-2012|3637062|37958798|).
Several things strike me about this. Firstly, how many four-year-olds notice such subtle differences in the way adults speak? Does his daughter read dictionaries rather than books with pictures?
Secondly, the correspondent (who I infer from his own use of the language to be American) says that he believes whom is safe for a few years yet. “Kids will go on reaching secondary school being taught, for the first time, how to use who‘s strange cousin”, he writes. That may be so in the US, but I bet there are many secondary school English teachers in the UK who don’t know the distinction themselves, let alone are able to communicate it in a way that their pupils will remember. In saying this I have no wish to upset the teaching profession but, rather, am lamenting the apparently inexorable downward spiral in the quality of English spoken – and, increasingly, written – by the British population (including journalists, who I still maintain have a special responsibility to get things right on behalf of the rest of us). Correctness in grammar seems to be a thing of the past.
The two editions of Fowler’s Modern English Usage I possess both begin the entry on “who and whom” with the essential distinction that “who” is subjective and “whom” objective. The Second Edition, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (1968), contains a further 2,000 or so words on the subject. The Third, Revised – or, rather, rewritten – by Robert Burchfield (2004), gets by with about 1,200. That in itself may tell us something about the evolving, and diminishing, differences between the two as the language develops.
Or perhaps not. A pithy observation comes from a reader commenting online on The Economist’s article. “Language is too complex to allow its structure to degrade to the standard of the colloquial”, says “Non-techie Talk”. (I love some of the nicknames that bloggers give themselves to preserve their anonymity, even on issues where anonymity is completely pointless.) I hope he/she is right, whoever/whomever/whomsoever they may be.