Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day
Today: “Than whom.”
In the awkward and (fortunately) now-rare inverted construction (e.g., T.S. Eliot, than whom few critics could be considered better), one might expect the nominative “who” to be the preferred pronoun. “Than” is treated as a conjunction in formal usage, not a preposition, so the preferable relative pronoun in formal writing would seem to be the nominative “who” rather than the objective “whom.” But the anomalous phrasing has been traditional since the latter part of the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary states that “than whom” “is universally recognized instead of ‘than who.'”
A late-19th-century American rhetorician objected to the phrase: ‘Than whom,’ as in the sentence, ‘Wilfred, than whom no truer friend to me exists, counsels this course,’ is an anomalous expression (‘than’ being treated as if it were a preposition with an object, whereas it is a conjunction) which it is better to avoid. The high example of Milton has given currency to the phrase.” John F. Genung, Outlines of Rhetoric 57 (1893).
But most 20th-century authorities accepted it. One of them, G.H. Vallins, explained that “usage has triumphed over ‘grammar’ and the ordinary speaker or writer over the pedant.” G.H. Vallins, Good English: How to Write It 85 (1951).
Still, very few “ordinary” speakers or writers ever use the phrase, which is essentially a literary idiom. It’s hardly surprising to find it in the writings of Hazlitt — e.g.: “I once knew a very ingenious man, than whom, to take him in the way of common chit-chat or fireside gossip, no one could be more entertaining or rational.” William Hazlitt, “On the Conversation of Authors” (1820), in A Reader for Writers 275, 291 (William Targ ed., 1951). But it would be surprising to find it in an informal essay written in the 21st century.
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Quotation of the Day:
“Think of a piece of writing as a trip from a definite starting point to a definite destination. At the very start we look for a signpost pointing the way and naming the place we are headed for. At every fork of the road we need directions — legible and understandable directions.” David Lambuth et al., The Golden Book on Writing 6-7 (1964).