Who/Whom is kind of an odd choice. I call it a conundrum because you’ll do better, much of the time, to go ahead and get it wrong.
That’s because most people won’t even notice if you get it wrong—most of the time. But they probably will notice when you try extra hard to get it right and THEN get it wrong.
Simply speaking, only a rabid grammar termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.
After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?”
The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.
Our rabid termagant will sputter that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, but that’s another argument. People DO end sentences with prepositions, and the principle stands: the incorrect “who” sounds more natural than the correct “whom,” so most people won’t even blink at this “mistake.”
The only time most people will want “whom” is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered:
- To whom did you give it?
- With whom were you going?
- I don’t remember for whom I bought this hat.
But do you have to write these particular sentences?
I suppose you may if you are writing Downton Abbey fan fiction. But in my view, don’t bother unless you have one of those hyperactive grammar consciences that wake you up in the middle of the night to go fix that comma you misplaced.
But ordinary people will be perfectly okay with
- Who did you give it to?
- Who were you going with?
- I don’t remember who I bought this hat for.
The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, one MUST use it whenever one wants to sound formal. One word for making choices like this is “hypercorrectness”: going so gaga trying to get it right that we actually get it wrong. For example:
- Whom is going with us?
Ouch, that really grates. Subjects of verbs are always in the “subjective case”: I, you, he, she, it, we, and they. And “who.”
- Who is going with us?
The messier—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.
- Did you say who is going with us?
(Correct: “who is going with us” is a noun clause acting as the direct object of “say,” but “who” is the subject of its own verb, “Is going.”)
- Did you say whom the hat is for?
(Again correct: Again, “whom the hat is for” is a noun phrase acting as the direct object of “say.” “Whom” is the object of the preposition “for.“).
But the troll of hypercorrectness comes charging out from under the bridge to wreak havoc on your writing when a writer gets paranoid and decides that “whom” sounds like what a smart person would say regardless of the role “who/whom” is playing in its own clause. Then we end up with
- Did you say whom is going with us?
(Incorrect: yes, once again, “whom is going with us” is the direct object of “say.” BUT “whom” is holding the place of subject of the verb “is going” IN ITS OWN CLAUSE and should be in the subjective case—that is, “who.”)
- Don’t give money to whomever asks for it.
(Again, incorrect. Yes, “whomever asks for it” is the object of the preposition “to.” BUT IN ITS OWN CLAUSE, “whomever” is trying to be the subject of “asks” and therefore should be in the subjective case—that is, “whoever.”)
Brain reeling? Too hard to sort all this out?
And to repeat the point of this post, THERE IS NO REASON ON EARTH not to go ahead and use the perfectly natural-sounding”who,” and quit worrying about whether it is technically a mistake. Then you will say
- Did you say who is going with us?
- Don’t give money to whoever asks for it.
And you’ll not only be right, you’ll sound right. and the bonus is, you’ll sound right even if you say
- Did you say who you bought the hat for?
So just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).
3 responses to “Grammar Check! The Who/Whom Conundrum: When What’s Wrong is Right!”
As you know, grammar and punctuation (don’t even get me started on spelling) aren’t my strong suit. having said that, who vs whom has never been a problem for me. Whom has to a large degree fallen out of common usage and you’re correct that it does tend to lend a formal tone these days. it’s a great word to inset into inner dialogue, of say, a teen protagonist the author wishes to show in a more intelligent light. sadly i think even that usage’s days are numbered. I’ve never received a positive reception using the word. it’s never that the word is incorrect, it’s always that it doesn’t sound right. Sad, really. A well placed ‘whom’ can save a dozen words or more.
Okay, anonymous, identify yourself so I will know to whom I am writing! 😉
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