Language Corner

A simple way to always remember who vs. whom

November 27, 2017

The former copy chief for BuzzFeed, Emmy J. Favilla, has a new book out, A World Without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, and it was the topic of discussion at a recent gathering of copy editors, current and past.

“With that title, I’m not even going to read it,” one longtime editor said. “I want more people to use ‘whom’ correctly, and someone who advocates for getting rid of it entirely will not get my money.”

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That’s a shame, on several levels. The book deals with “whom” for only one and a half pages out of its 363 pages (plus quizzes, footnotes, and an index, which glancingly mentions this columnist). But the lesson in that one section stands in for discussions of many other language conventions that so many editors and journalists are reticent to release. We’ll spend the next couple of weeks on a few of them. (And yes, “reticent” is one.)

First, a recap of the officious, er, official position on “whom”:

One uses “whom” when the person being referenced is the object of the sentence; one uses “who” when the person being referenced is the subject of the sentence. A simple example: “The person who uses who and whom correctly will always know whom to use it with.” The person, the subject, always knows how to use “who and whom” with the object.

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Nevermind that preposition at the end of the sample sentence. “In casual conversation we end sentences with prepositions and we never use whom,” Favilla writes. Point made.

One reason “whom” has dropped from everyday conversation is that people have a hard time figuring out who the subject is these days. Favilla provides the sentence “They were not sure whom would do a better job” as an example of incorrect use, and writes: “I understand the confusion here, and the assumption that because they is the subject of the sentence there can be only one subject—and therefore only one noun in the subjective case—so of course whom is the object spelled as such.” (And how many of you remember the subjective case or its complement, the nominative case?)

The problem, as Favilla says, is that “they” is indeed the subject of that sentence, “and the clause do a better job is a hint that the doer of that action must be in the subjective case as well. (Still with me? You wouldn’t have to be if whom were eradicated! Just saying.)”

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An easier “test” of whether to use “who” or “whom” is to reword the sentence so you can replace the putative subject(s) or object(s) with “he” or “him.” If you would use “him,” you would use “whom.” (The sexist mnemonic is that both “him” and “whom” end with the letter m.)

Take Favilla’s sentence, for example, “They were not sure whether he/him would do a better job,” and it’s easy to see that you would want to use “who,” not “whom.” Try it with our example sentence: He/Him uses who and whom correctly and will always know to use it with he/him.” It should be clear to most of you that the first should be “he” and the second “whom.”

But that trick takes time, so why even bother? Except in the most formal writing, you can almost always get away with “who,” and not risk misusing “whom,” which can make you sound more ignorant than if you misused “who.”

Climb down off your high dudgeons! We are not advocating abandoning the distinction entirely, merely relegating it to the category of  something to be used sparingly, carefully, and only if you know how. It’s nearly there anyway, so save your indignation for things that really matter, like “it’s” and “its.”

Even Bryan A. Garner, who may often defend more formal grammar long past its use-by date, says, “It’s true that in certain contexts, whom is stilted. That has long been so.” Even so, he says, it’s very much alive in American English, though, oddly, not so much in the usually more formal British English.

Here’s a simple piece of advice for whomever is still paying attention: If you don’t know if you’re using “whom” correctly, don’t even try—if you’re wrong, the bell will toll for whom.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.