To whom it may concern: how much longer?

Click to follow

The agony of "whom" drags on. I nearly wrote "death agony". Has it come to that? Perhaps not, but I can hardly bear to watch.

On Wednesday, Will Self's "You ask the questions" feature contained the words: "I'd love to do something with Massive Attack, who I know slightly." That should, of course, have been "whom", but to insist that "who" is wrong in such a sentence is beginning to look like pedantry flying in the face of common usage. I cannot even see that the language has been impoverished, any more than it was two centuries ago by the disappearance of "thou".

And on Monday, Donald Macintyre gave us the more exotic, but not rare, use of "whom" for "who". Out on the stump with the Lib Dems, he recalled that in 1983 there were "attempts... to launch a putsch against Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the Alliance's designated leader, whom his opponents claimed was failing to woo the electorate."

The standard diagnostic test in cases of "who/whom" difficulty is to recast the clause that begins with "who" or "whom" as a sentence using "he" or "him", "she" or "her", "they" or "them", as the case may be. In this instance, the result is not "they claimed him", but "they claimed he was failing to woo the electorate". So you want "who".

But when even writers as meticulous as Self and Macintyre fail to follow the rules, it begins to look as if the rules need changing.

Everybody uses "whom" after a preposition ­ "to whom", "by whom" and so on ­ but apart from that, things are just all over the shop. How much longer can this go on?


I don't believe it (even more than you don't): "Michael Portillo [has] never attempted to play this particular joker. Instead he promises something even more incredible," opined the business Outlook column on Tuesday. Either it cannot be believed or it can; there are no degrees of incredibility. What is wrong with "even more difficult to believe"? (See also "unique", "impossible" and so on.)


Singular difficulty: Taliban is a plural. The dread name of Afghanistan's rulers, who seem likely to overtake Saddam Hussein for the Western media's Dangerous Muslim Fanatic of the Year award, is actually innocuous. It means something like "students of Islamic studies". A news report on Tuesday began, "The Taliban is considering new rules that would force foreigners seeking an Afghan visa to commit themselves to a list of pledges."

It doesn't do to be doctrinaire about this. When foreign words enter the English language, their meanings change easily and fast. It was a short step from "the Taliban militia" to "the Taliban" meaning "the regime". But it still would have cost nothing to write, "The Taliban are considering..." and stay true to the origins of the word.


More number-crunching: Our Monday cricket report from Old Trafford said that England "will be hoping that the last of their lapses are behind them". That should have been "is". The lapses may be plural, but the last of them is only one lapse.


Laws of physics all wrong, say scientists: Our political editor looks into the future of William Hague. "If the Tories do badly the hail of criticism could light the touchpaper for an attempt to oust him as leader." A piece of paper, that is to say, could be set on fire by small pieces of ice falling from the sky.