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The How-Tos of Who and Whom

   

Just when you think you’ve got pronouns figured out, there’s who and (in the opinion of many) its vile doppelgänger, whom.

Doubts about who and whom plague even the most careful writers. Some cope by ignoring whom entirely, except in the most familiar and unassailable phrases, such as "to whom it may concern." Others prefer to agonize, pinning their hopes on what sounds right or looks best in a given sentence.

The rules

In truth, there is nothing mysterious about who and whom. They are governed by the same rules as the personal pronouns: use the subject form for subjects, the object form for objects. Who (and whoever) are subjects. Whom (and whomever) are objects. And that’s really all there is to it.

What makes the who/whom choice so irksome is that these pronouns tend to occur in two difficult kinds of sentences: (1) questions and (2) statements containing more than one clause. Because such sentences can have complex structures, it’s not always clear whether the pronoun in question serves as a subject or an object.

With questions, there are several ways of determining the pronoun’s role. One of the easiest is to re-ask the question using a gendered pronoun.

  • Who/whom will they designate as the new chair of the Cartography Committee?

Re-asking the question with a gendered pronoun yields "Will they designate her or him as the new chair?" Her and him are object forms, so the right choice here is whom, the object form.

Here’s another example:

  • Who/whom do you think will win the Best Sportsmanship Award in the regional euchre tournament?

Substitute a gendered pronoun and you get "Do you think he or she will win the award?" These are subject forms, meaning that who, the subject form, is correct.

Statements that contain multiple clauses are perhaps the most difficult who/whom sentences to crack. It helps to understand that when who or whom appears in such a sentence, its role is to begin a dependent clause. Focusing on that clause, and that clause only, is the secret to sorting out whether the pronoun is a subject or an object.

  • Jordan is determined to go out with whoever/whomever his friends consider the most attractive woman on the ski slopes.

First, look at the clause that begins with whoever/whomever. Next, reword the clause using a gendered pronoun: "his friends consider her the most attractive woman." Her is the object form, so whomever, the object, is required here.

The key to analysing this sentence, and sentences like it, is to ignore the words outside the clause that the pronoun begins. That means forgetting about "Jordan is determined to go out with," which is not part of the clause in question and has nothing to do with the whoever/whomever choice.

Now consider another sentence, which at first glance seems just like the previous one but in fact has quite a different structure.

  • Jordan is determined to go out with whoever/whomever his friends think is the most attractive woman on the ski slopes.

Again, begin by isolating the clause that begins with whoever/whomever. Then reword the clause: "his friends think she is the most attractive woman." She tells us that the subject form, whoever, is the right pronoun here. This sentence is especially treacherous because of the short clause "his friends think," which interrupts the whoever/whomever clause. But its presence doesn’t change the fact that whoever is the subject of the verb is, a relationship that emerges once you reword the clause using a different pronoun.

Who cares about whom?

There’s no question that whom is the marbled murrelet of the wild world of grammar—a threatened species that few can use reliably in writing and fewer still can trot out in speech. For many, the word carries a whiff of pomposity, an air of know-it-all snobbishness, that makes it as unlikely as a top hat at a hockey game. All of which leads a sensible English practitioner to wonder, why bother with whom?

That question haunted Theodore M. Bernstein, a former New York Times editor and eminent language authority on record as saying, "I favor whom’s doom except after a preposition." In fact, the usually punctilious Bernstein, for whom personally dismissing the word was not enough, campaigned to have whom banished from the English language. Humorist Bill Bryson (himself no slouch in the language department) writes in Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words that Bernstein canvassed twenty-five usage gurus in 1975 to see if they thought whom was worth preserving, except after a preposition. Six were in favour of keeping the word, four were undecided and fifteen voted to dump it.

Yet whom is still with us. Why is it so tenacious? Why has it not obligingly exited the language? It’s not that English grammar is resistant to change. After all, grammarians have toppled once inviolate rules like "never split an infinitive" and "never end a sentence with a preposition." So why do we preserve whom, which has been slipping out of our spoken language for so long now?

I wonder if there’s something more subtle and more human than grammar at work here. Who and whom are relative pronouns, just like which and that. Yet unlike which and that (which don’t have separate subject and object forms), who and whom refer specifically to people. In a way this aligns them more closely with the personal pronouns, which still carry a subject-object distinction. Is there a connection? Is there some deep-seated human need that inclines us to specify whether a person is a subject or an object? Does some psychological or sociopolitical force compel us to make this differentiation, to spell out this hierarchy of power?

Whatever the reason, it seems that English, at least the formal written variety, is stuck with who and whom for some time to come. So unless you’re planning a "doom whom" campaign of your own, it’s probably best to accept these pronouns gracefully and learn to use them well.

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