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Does Horton Hear A Who or A Whom?

by Diane Sandford

Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

--Ernestine the Telephone Operator (pseudonym of Lily Tomlin, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, NBC, 1968-1973)

Ernestine may have toyed unmercifully with unsuspecting phone company customers, but she certainly won the hearts of grammar gurus by using whom correctly. This column is dedicated not only to Ernestine, but also to those "for whom the bell tolls." (The bell, tolling to announce a death, tolls for the living.) In this instance, author John Dunne (1623) used whom correctly. But William Shakespeare made a mistake when he wrote, "Ferdinand whom they suppose is drowned"-The Tempest III. iii. 92 (1612). It may give you small comfort to know that grammarians once predicted the demise of the word whom, but the problem continues to vex us on a daily basis.

The Basic Rule

Here is the deceptively simple rule for who and whom:

Use who for the subject of a clause; use whom for an object of a verb or a preposition.

Often the best way to determine whether who or whom should be used is to diagram the sentence. Diagramming can be a tremendously helpful tool that provides a visual representation of sentence structure and can eliminate much uncertainty in your selection of who/whom.

The Chase

Should we say Guess who or Guess whom? (The sentence is a command, not a question.) It certainly appears that whom is the direct object of the verb guess, and some grammarians say Guess whom is correct. Others interpret the sentence as You guess who it is. Who is the subject of the subordinate clause who it is, or it is who. (Recall that intransitive verbs do not take an object.)

Suppose I interpret the sentence to mean You guess to whom I am referring. Then whom is the object of I refer to whom. Probably not even the author knows which interpretation was intended. This is such stuff as screams are made of (with all due respect to Shakespeare).

William Safire offered the perfect tongue-in-cheek solution to the dilemma: "When whom is correct, recast the sentence" ("On Language," New York Times, 4 October 1992).

More Examples

  • You will work with John, whom you will meet later. (Whom is the direct object of the subordinate clause's verb, will meet.)
  • You will work with John, who is a morning person. (Who is the subject of the subordinate clause.)
  • Who is here? (Who is the subject of the intransitive verb is.)
  • Whom did they send? (Whom is the direct object of the verb send.)
  • Here's another useful rule of thumb:

    If you can substitute him, then use whom; if you can substitute he, then use who.

    Consider this statement: The salesperson whom you requested is away. (You requested him, so use whom.) Note that whom is the object of the verb, not the subject, in the subordinate clause whom you requested. Let's change the sentence slightly: This is the salesperson who won the award for most cars sold this month. Who is now the subject of the clause who won the award. Substitute he for who, and the sentence makes sense.

    Take the Who/Whom Challenge

    Unusual constructions and peculiar interpretations will always cause us to scratch our heads. Are you ready for a challenge? If you can correctly parse all of the following sentences, then perhaps you should be writing this column. Good luck.

    1. He is the man who/whom I thought he was.

    2. Who/whom did you wish to speak to?

    3. You know who/whom.

    4. Who/Whom shall I say is calling?

    5. One man, who/whom she believes is honest, is Senator Smith.

    6. Who/whom do you think you are?

    7. Who/Whom is this for?

    8. The prize goes to whoever/whomever survives.

    9. Jill, who/whom Jack blamed for distracting him with her flirty ways, also went tumbling down the hill.

    10. Whoever/whomever I respected received an appointment.

    11. We feed children who/whom we think are hungry.

    Answers to the Challenge - Click Here

    Sometimes sentences are so constructed that only expert grammatical analysis can determine the correct use of these awful twins. What should we do then? When in doubt, use who. Why? Because whom only sounds natural when preceded by a preposition - e.g., Give the job to whomever you choose. That is why the literary stars, who work for effect rather than for grammatical points, often commit grammatical errors.

    For a long time The New Yorker used to run items like "Whom did you say is coming?" [Whom should be who, the subject of is coming.] under the heading "The Omnipotent Whom." We once mentioned to Hobart Weekes, then managing editor of the magazine, that we hadn't seen any such items in recent years. He nodded sadly and said, "We had to give it up. We found that almost nobody knew what was wrong with them."

    -William and Mary Morris, Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, 2nd ed. (Harper & Row, 1985), page 624.

    Additional Resources

    For a more extensive discussion of the who/whom issue, consult Garner's Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, October 2003), available from Amazon. Diana Hacker's Language Debates is another excellent resource and provides electronic exercises on using who and whom as well.

    If you're interested in a refresher course on diagramming sentences, I recommend A Workbook of Sentence Diagramming, by Eugene R. Moutoux, and Grammar & Diagramming Sentences, by Nan De Vincentis-Hayes (Garlic Press, 1997), also available from Amazon. Many other excellent online resources exist as well.