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In the court of common usage, an old pronoun is losing its case

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LAST week The Economist considered the new South African president’s in-tray, advertising our advice on the cover with the words “Who Cyril Ramaphosa should fire”. Some readers might have wondered whether someone should fire our proofreaders. Shouldn’t that be “Whom Cyril Ramaphosa should fire”?

It wasn’t a cock-up. On its face, our editors agreed, the grammar was clear. It should be whom. Who is used for subjects, whom for objects, including direct objects such as that of the verb to fire. “He fires him”, not “He fires he”. Thus, “He fires whom”.

The issue is not as simple as that. Whom is one of the few remaining vestiges of case in English. At the time of “Beowulf”, the great monster-slaying Anglo-Saxon epic, English nouns, pronouns and adjectives, plus words like the, all had an ending…Continue reading

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