March 30th, 2005
Two years experience or two years' experience? / the use of whom
by Barbara Wallraff
Carole Arsenault, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, writes: “My company recently placed an employment ad in the paper. Part of it read ‘minimum two years’ experience.’ I am not sure the possessive apostrophe after ‘years’ is correct. Other ads I read did not have one. Is it ‘two years experience’ or ‘two years’ experience’?”
Dear Carole: That possessive apostrophe is perfectly correct. People often mistakenly think that the grammatical term “possessive” always refers to ownership, belonging to, or, well, possession. Sometimes it does -- as in “Carole’s newspaper.” But possessives fill other roles too, and a common one is in expressions of time or value: “two weeks’ notice,” “two dollars’ worth.”
Samuel Bell, of Madison, Wis., writes: “My mother taught me to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly, but I’ve never actually used ‘whom’ in daily speech. I do frequently use ‘whom’ in writing. Recently, however, I’ve been seeing ‘whom’ less and less often. Many writers replace it incorrectly with ‘who.’ What should I do? Should I keep on sounding awkward or succumb to poor usage?”
Dear Samuel: Thank goodness, there are usually other options. It is true that some experts on language have argued for a very long time that “whom” is mostly useless and bound to fade away. Noah Webster, America’s great dictionary maker, denounced the word as long ago as 1783. In 1990 William Safire wrote, “The best rule for dealing with ‘who’ vs. ‘whom’ is this: Whenever ‘whom’ is required, recast the sentence.” And yet “whom” continues to come naturally to us in certain constructions -- for instance, “for whom the bell tolls” and “language experts, many of whom have a few odd ideas ...” “Whom” isn’t about to disappear altogether.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.