Q: Here’s a sentence in the NY Times: “The white guitarist Jimmie Rodgers, who many consider the father of country music, built the genre on a foundation of the blues in the 1920s.” Is this use of “who” correct, and why?
A: It’s not technically correct, and it violates the latest edition of the Times stylebook.
Although it’s usually OK to use “who” for “whom” in conversation or informal writing, the Times holds itself to a higher standard. In fact, the online version of the sentence that caught your eye now conforms with Times style: the “who” is “whom.”
Here’s an excerpt from the “who, whom” entry in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (5th ed., 2015):
“Many dictionaries have relaxed the distinction between these words, abandoning whom unless it directly follows a preposition. But in deference to a grammar-conscious readership and a large classroom circulation, The Times observes the traditional standard:
“Use who in the sense of he, she or they: Pat L. Milori, who was appointed to fill the vacancy, resigned. (He was appointed.) Use whom in the sense of him, her or them: Pat L. Milori, whom the board recommended, finally got the job. (The board recommended him.)”
Our own Pat explains it this way in the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, her usage and grammar book:
“If you want to be absolutely correct, the most important thing to know is that who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him). You might even try mentally substituting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel).”
And as we said above, you can usually avoid using “whom” in conversation or informal writing. In “A Cure for the Whom-Sick,” a section in the book, Pat offers a few tips on “whom”-less writing:
“Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing— personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.
“Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.
“A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.”