Readers respond: CJR’s use of ‘whomever’ and ‘reticence’

Image: Kevin Jones/flickr.

Last week, we discussed “who” and “whom” and whether learning when to use each was worth the trouble, given how frequently each is misused. We wrote:

Here’s a simple piece of advice for whomever is still paying attention: If you don’t know if you’re using “whom” correctly, don’t even try—if you’re wrong, the bell will toll for whom.

That column set off a flurry of scolders, including the venerable Bryan A. Garner, tsk-tsking at our incorrect usage of “whomever.”

Lighten up, people! The misuse was deliberate, to point out how difficult it can be to decide which to use. Let’s just take a few recent examples:

1) From The Arizona Republic: “There will be millions of dollars worth of cookie-cutter political messages in Arizona from Democratic and liberal groups demonizing Trump and tying whomever turns out to be Sinema’s Republican opponent to him.”

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2) From The Daily News: “He’s polite to everyone, looking whomever he’s talking to in the eyes.”

3) From The Herald-Citizen in Tennessee: “Forman said the offseason program will be vitally important for the Golden Eagles, whomever is hired for the head coaching position.”

4) From The Chicago Sun-Times: “This is a power-everything interior and that helps enhance comfort for whomever is riding within the luxurious confines.”

Which of those “whomevers” is correct, if any? Sorry, time’s up. If you don’t know immediately, you probably should embrace the fading away of “whom.”*

But let’s move on.

ICYMI: Ouch! These are headlines editors probably wish they could take back

We said that last week would be the beginning of a discussion of some “language conventions that so many editors and journalists are reticent to release.” One reply to Garner’s tweet about “whomever” was also full of righteous indignation over our use of “reticent.”

More than eight years ago, we wrote how “reticent” was being used to mean “reluctant” in addition to its traditional usage, which Merriam-Webster says is “inclined to be silent or uncommunicative in speech: reserved,” or “restrained in expression, presentation, or appearance.” (“Taciturn,” in other words.) But M-W’s third definition is “reluctant.”

Just because a word is in the dictionary with a certain definition, of course, doesn’t mean it’s fully acceptable English. After all, “irregardless” and “ain’t” are both in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you should use them in formal papers or where you’re trying to impress someone. So it is with “reticent.”

For more than 20 years, The Associated Press Stylebook has had an entry: “Reluctant means unwilling to act: He is reluctant to enter the primary. Reticent means unwilling to speak: The candidate’s husband is reticent.”

Yet news organizations that supposedly follow the Associated Press stylebook routinely use “reticent” in violation, as in “Still, members of both parties have long been reticent to cut benefits, especially for seniors, due in part to the potential political cost of doing so.” Or “The women, who the trade publication said wished to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, said Lauer used his position of power over NBC employees who would be reticent to complain because of his prominent position in the company. Or “Such a move would still result in a large cut from the current top rate of 35 percent but would give lawmakers some additional money to use for other concessions necessary to win over reticent lawmakers.

Yes, we’re cherry picking. You can find lots of instances where “reticent” is used “correctly,” as in this passage: “Mike Pompeo, the feisty and politically ambitious CIA director who is likely headed to State, is the un-Tillerson. He’s flamboyant where Tillerson is guarded, sharp and sometimes snarky where Tillerson is reticent.”

But we’re willing to bet that nobody misunderstood the intent of the passages where “reticent” was used “incorrectly.” And if usage authorities have been pointing out for 20 years that something is “wrong” but people are still using it, it’s probably because people aren’t sure of the difference. Indeed, Garner’s Modern English Usage says that the “difference between taciturnity and reluctance is extremely subtle.” It lists the usage of “reticent” in the sense of “reluctant” at Stage 4 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning it’s only a matter of time before it’s fully acceptable.

The American Heritage Dictionary, which is often among the first to adopt popular usages, includes a usage note at its entry for “reticent”:

Reticent is generally used to indicate a reluctance to speak. Most commentators on usage have criticized its extended use as an all-purpose synonym for reluctant. In our 2001 survey, 83 percent of the Panel found unacceptable the sentence A lot of out-of-towners are reticent to come to the Twin Cities for a ballgame if there’s a chance the game will be rained out.

The “Panel” is the Usage Panel. We were not on the panel in 2001, when that survey was taken. We are now, and we are not “reticent” in saying which way we would lean.

*Let’s take a vote: Tweet @meperl and @cjr with the number(s) of the passage(s) that used “whomever” incorrectly. We’re willing to bet not everyone will agree.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.