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.