I’ve previously mentioned that I’m somewhat of a grammar enthusiast. I’m more of a language and communication enthusiast really but this does come with a bit of grammar pedantry, usually just enough to embarrass myself when I reread old things I’ve written.

For future reference, I wanted to clarify my thoughts about a particular relic of English grammar, the crusty old dative pronoun whom. I quite like this word and occasionally enjoy having some fun with it. I personally can not help but mentally copy edit text I hear (Bo Didley - "Whom Do You Love?", ACDC - "Who Made Whom?", Ghostbusters - "Whom you gonna call?", etc…)

But here’s the thing, as those examples illustrate, real English speakers are usually perfectly ok with not using whom "correctly". My personal rules are simple.

  1. If you definitely know what you’re doing and you want to use whom and it is 100% correct, use it.

  2. If you’re writing for a prestigious widely read publication that has a well established history of punctilious grammatical perfection, then learn the rules well enough to apply #1.

  3. If you’re using a set piece that most everyone knows, don’t go mucking that up by changing it. In other words, don’t use something like "to who it may concern" or "for who the bell tolls".

  4. If none of the previous rules apply, don’t worry about whom! Use who always. No one (you care about) will mind.

If you follow these rules you’ll not run afoul of what I do consider a serious English faux pas: using whom when it is not correct. It is always better to err on the side of not using it. To add a superfluous whom says, loudly, that you tried to be a fancy English communicating sophisticate and failed.

Here’s an an example of the usually immaculate Economist violating this dictum.

"However, Brexiteers have jumped on anyone whom they think is exaggerating the economic impact of the decision to Leave."

This type of construction is very tricky and catches otherwise careful writers off guard. The mistake is easy to see if you remove the (almost parenthetical) "they think" clause.

"Brexiteers have jumped on anyone whom is exaggerating the impact."

The sentence could have clumsily been stuffed with a correct whom if it was rearranged into something like this: "However, Brexiteers have jumped on anyone whom they think of as exaggerating the economic impact of the decision to Leave." In that arrangement, it’s the object of a preposition, one of the surest signs that whom is correct (as in the examples of rule 3).

As I said, just be cool about it and if you take the trouble to learn and internalize the whom rules, consider personal grammar editing a fun little hobby that you can (usually!) keep to yourself. Otherwise treat it like quantum physics, i.e. assume that some people must know how it all works but you don’t have to.