Is It a Case of Who or Whom You Know?

Pronouns. Or against them?

Grammar is that language stuff "any native speaker of (a) language knows intuitively", according to britannica.com.


Search 'grammar' on your internet browser and you will see words like study, structure, documented, conventions, systems. Words that convey a sense of order, a rigour.


But then, up will pop the word 'rules'. And that's where the problems start.


Rules are funny things. 'Prescribed for conduct or action', rules are dictatorial. They are not open to debate. Rules separate the right from the wrong. They must be clear and leave no room for interpretation.


When it comes to grammar, rules need to be, well, more malleable. They require post-rationalisation, are built with illogical logic, and incorporate as many exceptions as they do examples. If you're determined to see grammar as a rule-based system, you will have to be prepared to contradict yourself many times.


Rules may be there to be broken, but jeez, this is saying something.


Grammar is lead as much by emotion as it is by logic

If you thought that logical decision-making was at the heart of the prescribed English Grammar, you might be surprised to know that personal taste and subjectivity often played their part.


An excellent illustration of this can be seen when you look at the age-old question of who v whom. If there were ever a Top 10 Grammar Mistakes Most Corrected - it would be a very tedious MTV half hour - but who and whom, would likely be jostling for the Number 1 spot along with the misplaced apostrophe of it's vs its.


Additionally, the who and whom question often throws up a further problem, making it a grammar TwoFer. Let's take an example:


Recently I was asked which of these were correct. according to the accepted rules of grammar:


"I'm using products from Company X, who I'm partnering with.”


"I'm using products from Company X, whom I'm partnering with."


The question is clearly about the use of who or whom, as opposed to the bland name of the Company. Many people believe that the correct word is driven by the formality of the context, probably due to the authority implied by To Whom It May Concern, but language is just language.


Irrespective of context, a pronoun is a substitution for the proper name of a person or thing; in this example, Company X. The only real purpose of a pronoun is to minimise repetition of the thing. And the different versions exist just to specify if the thing is the subject of the sentence (that is 'doing the doing') or the object, (that the doing is being done to).


Here, the partnering is being done to (or with) the thing, so we need the object form.


That may sound complicated and doesn't help with the answer if you don't know which is which. The funny thing is that we rarely have issues with any of the other members of the pronoun family. It is just the teenagers, who and whom (though I and me may be troublesome tweenies) that cause the problems.


So rather than try to remember something new, let's work from a place we're already pretty comfortable. Substitute the company name with a person's name and then choose the appropriate pronoun.

Say your partner was Brian

In our example sentence, you would say 'I am partnering with Brian' or 'I am partnering with him'.


It's unlikely you would be puzzling over whether it should be 'partnering with he'.


If it was Sheila, the same applies. Would you say I am partnering 'with her' or 'with she'?


On that basis, you would use Him and Her as your proxy and see that the corresponding form you need is whom, making the answer:


"I'm using products from Company X, whom I'm partnering with."


Except that doesn't sound right.


The Bridge of With

Now we have to face up to the other problem alluded to earlier. One I call the dangling preposition.


Or 'The Wasted With'.

Come on a metaphor with me

A small child sitting on a bridge with just their teddy bear
The Bridge of With

Imagine the subject of the sentence is your house.


It is located on the south side of the river. On the north of the river is your friend's house, the object of the sentence.


If you are to connect with your friend, you will need a bridge to take you across the river.


If the bridge is behind you, it's useless. You are left incomplete, only able to sit on the bridge, with just your teddy bear for company.


And we are back from the metaphor

The preposition does the same job as that bridge, lying in the middle of the subject and object. If this isn't explicit enough, with is that bridge.


In the eyes of the Grammar Genius, use of the dangling preposition – more formally known as preposition stranding – is a heinous crime. One you will often be asked to 'correct'. And yet there is no logic behind it and no risk of misinterpretation without it.


It's just a matter of opinion. An opinion that was documented 250 years ago.

 

Robert Lowth was the Bishop of Oxford in the mid-eighteenth century, known for his popularisation of the Old Testament and of the poetry in the Psalms. He was also a believer in prescriptive education, extolling the rules of right and wrong to better the lives of others.


In 1762, Lowth wrote the popular text called A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Strong of opinion, he often disagreed with the views of his peers and of scholars who had been before him. Sometimes he also disagreed with the way language was being commonly used.


One such disagreement was for the dangling preposition. For years, writers such as Shakespeare, Swift and Pope had been using what Lowth thought of as an idiom, inappropriate for formal writing.


It mattered little to the bishop that it was written everywhere as he wrote

"the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous."

Before ordering examples of what he called 'false syntax' to be removed from any existing works by those authors and others. He even had it edited out of the King James Bible.


Though it wasn't written for the purpose, A Short Introduction became the manual for teaching grammar in schools. Teachers used the approach as well as the content, so instead of educating, it was all about remembering and reciting. And for most children, it is still today.

 

So, when we consider the man's subjective opinion, we get the answer


"I'm using products from Company X, with whom I'm partnering."


So why does it still sound wrong?

Photo by Ellie Burgin from Pexels
Uncomfortable in the mouth

A bad taste in the mouth

Some words just feel awkward when we form them in our mouths. They feel unnatural somehow. Whom is such a word. Try it now. The "OOO" needs to be elongated and feels old-fashioned and affected. When you say it aloud, you sound like the start of a Noel Coward impression.


It feels unusual because it is unusual. To my knowledge, there is not another word in the English language that ends in "hom" but is pronounced like "womb". If there is, I would safely say it can't be in common usage. But let me know if I have forgotten something.


Our dislike for the uncommon is instinctive. It is illogical, driven by our emotions.


Most of us don't notice the emotional pull shaping our opinions. We just feel something is wrong and have a natural desire to be right. When our brains look for the logical solution, it finds the cupboard is bare. We are left with a sentence that nobody likes, even if they don't know why.


So the real answer is that the question is wrong. The way to resolve this is to use the approach that some may think is typically British.


We ignore it.


And the answer becomes:


"I'm using products from my partners, Company X."

or

"I'm using products from Company X. They're my partners in this."

etc.


When it comes to knowing how best to use grammar, we must always remember that we are the dog, not the tail. And by removing the problem, the problem doesn't exist.

It's all about you

If we have to avoid using them, then you may wonder why we still hold such things as rules. We kinda don't really - it's more a matter of time. Time for more educators to teach less prescriptively. Time for people to forget the words altogether. Time for usage to disappear entirely.


And time for the generations of Grammar Geniuses who fight to uphold the rules they were taught...to die.


It will happen.


An example. Look back at the subject and object list above. Notice the missing second person pronoun.


We all know that, for both subject and object, this is you.


It's always been you. (As the song goes.)


It has to be you. (As the other song almost goes.)


Not quite. For longer than we have used you, the subject version of the second person pronoun was thou. Its object form, thee.


But people stopped using them.


And language caught up. As it will do again and again, as time passes.


Thou mark my words.


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