Does Horton Hear A Who or A Whom?
the party to whom I am speaking?
--Ernestine the Telephone Operator (pseudonym of Lily Tomlin,
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
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.
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).
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).
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
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
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
Take the Who/Whom Challenge
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
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.
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
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.
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