Who, Whom, and other Word Misuses
Erik (The Kid Who Reviews Books), a frequent visitor and commenter on The Story Reading Ape’s blog, requested a post discussing who and whom. Thanks for the suggestion, Erik, and if anyone else has any requests, please leave them in the comments!
Many writers struggle with when to use “who” and when to use “whom,” which are both pronouns. The technical explanation is that “who” is a subjective pronoun; it should be used to refer to the subject of a sentence. “Whom” is an objective pronoun; it should be used to refer to the object of a sentence.
But unless you like to diagram sentences in your sleep, that’s probably way too mechanical for you. A common helpful hint is:
If the pronoun can be replaced by “he” or “she,” then use “who.”
If the pronoun can be replaced by “him” or “her,” then use “whom.”
This also works if who/whom is preceded or followed by the pronouns listed above.
He, who told me the secret, will be coming with me to the ball.
Who wrote this essay? (Answer: “he” or “she” wrote this essay.)
Who is the project leader? (Answer: “he” or “she” is the project leader.)
Steve, whom the book is about, died last year. (The book is about “him.”)
Another hint is to look for a preposition—“to,” “for,” or “with” are common ones. “Whom” almost invariably follows a preposition.
To whom shall I address this invitation?
With whom are you attending the play?
For whom are you intending these instructions?
Whom did you meet with yesterday? (In this case, the preposition “with” comes later in the sentence, but it’s still connected with “whom.”)
“Whom” is quite formal. People don’t typically speak in a formal manner, so if you’re writing dialogue in a fiction book, editors may not correct the spoken phrase, “Steve, who the book is about, died last year.” While it’s not grammatically correct, many people would use “who” in their speech in this example—and it especially would not be corrected if the character speaking habitually used poor English as a character trait.
Another example of pronoun misuse frequently comes at the end of a sentence, especially when deciding which pronoun to use after the words “than” or “as”:
Shyla was not as good a rider as her.
Shyla was not as good a rider as she.
Josey was taller than I.
Josey was taller than me.
Which is it? This type of confusion can easily be eliminated if you add the missing verb to the sentence in your mind. Then it becomes very clear, even if it “sounds better” the other way. This is because in informal English—especially in speech—most people tend to follow “to be” verbs with object pronouns like “me,” “her,” and “them.”
Shyla was not as good a rider as her [was]. Incorrect!
Shyla was not as good a rider as she [was]. Correct!
Josey was taller than I [am]. Correct!
Josey was taller than me [am]. Incorrect!
Next week we’ll discuss ‘Punctuating Prepositional and Appositive Phrases’
This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.
I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.
If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.