For Whom the Bell Tolls

Some of my characters are grammarians, but most of them are not. I don’t write fiction that is top-loaded with slang dialog or over-the-top New York-ese accents — with their accompanying eccentric sentence constructions. I do, however, try to reflect the way real people speak. This means misusing certain words and often leaving unfinished sentences.

WHO and WHOM are floating in a foggy territory between people that believe proper grammar is important and the rest of the world. “Whom” — to whom, from whom, with whom — is almost completely absent from common conversation, and I know a more than a few people for whom this is a tragedy.

Part of me wants to say — just let it go, because a living language evolves and changes. What’s required can soon become optional and what’s optional may, and often will, become irrelevant down the road. Part of me also wants to hang onto WHOM because proper use of whom in dialog sends a quick and clear message to the reader about that character.

WHOM comes up in a few different contexts. One is simply an educated speaker, over the age of 40, for whom there is no option but to speak correctly. This is very useful when I’m writing dialog. Whom distinguishes the speaker immediately. The other context is the supercilious corrector character. Condescending characters often reveal their arrogance by correcting the speech of others. When people use who instead of whom, I instead of me, or good instead of well, they feel compelled to fix the other speaker.

In real life, I’ve slapped down a few correctors. It’s not that I’m a sloppy speaker, but when someone needs to stop the flow of a back-and-forth conversation to correct grammar, they are asking to be taken down a notch.

For whom does the bell toll? I’m not sure. It’s probably for all of us as we try to write naturalistic dialog.


  1. If who and whom weren’t used correctly in an historical context it could have all the ‘pickers’ congregating to correct you too. These days I think as in speech you have to pitch it towards the audience you’re speaking to. Some will use slang easily and others will expect the correct usage of language. Your character will know how he’s most comfortable.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • Candy Korman

      Yes, the character knows their own comfort zone.
      Sometimes you have to put yourself in their shoes and make their mistakes.

  2. I was taught at an early age that it was impolite to correct someone when speaking in public. Some people have disabilities that keep them from using language the way we are taught in school and the corrections do little more than shame them.

    It has always been a hot button for me and tends to turn me off from the people who delight in doing it.

    Which is odd in my family setting. We tend to delight in catching every turn of phrase and using it against each other. Of course, this is something done in the safety of the family and not when we are out where others can hear it.

    • Candy Korman

      It’s amazing how many people can’t resist that urge to jump in and FIX who and whom or I and me. It’s a control strategy that stops the speaker’s flow and unnerves them. In dialog, that kind of compulsion to be a proper grammarian can be very revealing. I’m sure a psychologist would interpret that kind of need to correct as rooted in lack of confidence.

      The safety zone of a family is another kettle of worms. My spoken, and written, grammar is what it is because at home my dad wanted us to speak “properly.” But I don’t remember him delighting in “catching” mistakes. LOL!