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War of the Words

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.



It is one of the more familiar passages in English literature, and one phrase in John Donne's poem lent itself to one of Ernest Hemingway's best-sellers: "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which would not sound right without the Whom. Yet when users of Twitter click open their home page, there is the ungrammatical, inelegant and generally annoying guide telling the user "Who to follow."

According to the Wall Street Journal, Thomas Steiner, a software engineer who works for Google out of Hamburg, Germany, is one of the discerning few who objects to such a barbarism. Leave it to a correct German not only to object to this latest deterioration of the English language but to correct it by devising a new browser plug-in that's available-- free! -- to those who still care about the basically Germanic hybrid that has come to be known as English.

"As a non-native speaker (of English), I make a lot of effort to learn the language," says Herr Steiner, "and the people who should know better don't." What excuse can there be for so cheapening the treasure that is the English tongue? For there can be no reason for it, but only excuses. And the brazen Brielle Villablanca, a spokesperson for Google, was quick to offer this one: "The 'whoms' put up a good fight, but we ultimately opted for a more natural cadence and the 'whos' won out." Over the English language, the one in which not just Ernest Hemingway wrote but William Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible.

It was one thing for the Ghostbusters in the movie to adopt the phrase "Who ya gonna call?" in its theme song because the spoken and even sung tongue quite appropriately deviates from the written one. Just as there is a place for dialect even on the printed page. But to write instructions in it is, or certainly should be, unacceptable to people who care about the state of the language, which has had its ups and downs since its high point in the early 17th century, and this is not one of its finest hours.


Quick, James T. Harding to the rescue! Much like a one-man version of Ghostbusters hurrying to the site of a slimy manifestation in order to defend truth, justice and the American way with words. Mr. Harding is a British scriptwriter and logophile who can remember going through music videos as a teenager in order to correct their soundtracks. That's when he founded the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire, whose flowering he has lovingly overseen until today it's become the worldwide Whom Appreciation Society, may it live long and continue to prosper. Lovers of the language will want to sign up as members forthwith.

Ben Yagoda professes English and journalism at the University of Delaware, though the two should never be confused, let alone combined. He speaks a fluent Twitterese, as Discerning Reader will immediately appreciate -- and apprehend -- from what he said in defense of using Who in place of Whom when it comes to instructions about how to use Twitter, a medium that scarcely seems aware that the word Whom still exists. Brother Yagoda tells the Journal that if saying "Who to follow" is bad language, "it would be worse to say 'Whom to follow.' It's so stilted. I mean, here you are on social media with all these exclamation points and whatever."

Free translation: When in Rome, do as the barbarians do. Professor Yagoda's use of the word or rather the meaningless sound "whatever" is a sure tipoff that he's joined the inarticulate or maybe the just plain lazy when it comes to language, or maybe thought itself.

Sad to say, the esteemed Calvin Trillin -- who remains articulate even when defending the inarticulate -- has signed on with those who favor Who over Whom in this war of the words. "As far as I'm concerned, 'whom' is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler." Which wouldn't be an altogether bad thing, for butlers perform a needed service in this unbuttoned and, alas, all too unbutlered age even if they occasionally use Whom where Who would be the better choice. Mr. Trillin's snide comment reveals not only a contempt for proper language but proper manners. Abusing the help is one form of snobbery people of good breeding abjure, not embrace. And more snobs We the People don't need just now, or at any other time.


It would be better, and more considerate, to follow the lead of Doctor Whom, a grammatically immaculate TimeLord who's the creation of one Adam Roberts, who is (a) a talented science-fiction writer, (b) professor of 19th-century literature at the University of London, and (c) an advocate of a zero-tolerance approach to parodictation. Or as he told the Journal, "I'm a grammar pedant in a light-hearted way. There's a difference between being a grammar Nazi and a Nazi." He likes using Whom when it's correct because "there's just something elegant about it." Another term for that elegance is simple good taste, which all should be able to afford no matter what their station in life.

Women know. A few years ago, Wired magazine conducted a poll of dating sites on the Internet like and OKCupid to determine what made someone a desirable date. It found, among other things, that men who used Whom rather than the common Who had a much better chance -- a 31-percent better chance, to be more precise -- than those who stuck with the plebeian Who in all circumstances. "This changes everything!" commented the writers of the University of Pennsylvania's usually highly proper Language Log, who clearly have not lost their sense of humor. "It's not just about the inflectional marking of relative and interrogative pronouns any more, people. It's about getting more sex."

Still, it's a safe wager that it'll be a long time before legal and other documents begin with the linguistic abomination, "To who it may concern:" For which some of us are most grateful.


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