EDITING 101: 42 – Who, Whom, and other Word Misuses…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

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’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

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.

Susan

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27 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 42 – Who, Whom, and other Word Misuses…

  1. Susan, I hope at some point you’re planning to put all this together for a book! I like how clearly you explain things and I prefer your style over the explanations that show the WRONG ways next to the RIGHT ways! LOL! My brain doesn’t need to SEE the wrong ways a millisecond before trying to remember the RIGHT ways! Sheeesh!

    :>
    MJM

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on Becky's Book Notes and commented:
    This is a continuing series from Adirondack Editing. I want to share this one in particular because whether to use who or whom has confused me for so long! Thank you once again, Susan and Chris! I hope this clears this up for everyone else like it did for me. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your note about the informal use of who instead of whom pointed out that ” it especially would not be corrected if the character speaking habitually used poor English as a character trait.”

    That brought something to mind that I have considered fleetingly over the years when asked to advise people about “good books to read.” The question is often asked either by young people or by people learning English as a second language, and in either case an extensive use of dialectical speech can pose a problem.

    I’ve never been fond of the misuse of the MPAA system to forbid entrance to movies because of age, nor of the fanaticism of parents who forbid their young teens from seeing a movie because it has bad words or smoking or drinking etc at some point in the film. MPAA ratings have SOME use for children who are really young or who are easily frightened etc, but I’m still not thrilled with it.

    HOWEVER… I could see the utility of books having a Language rating for correct English. I’ve always loved the way Stephen King uses dialect to differentiate many of the main characters’ dialogue entries in a book… but for someone learning the language it could really be counterproductive.

    Would it be worth asking publishers to add a note/rating label of some sort indicating the degree of formality/informality of correct English usage in novels?

    😕
    MJM

    Liked by 2 people

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