Thursday, September 17, 2015


Two indefinite pronouns that cause definite problems

     Most of us routinely ignore the object pronoun “whom” and use the subject pronoun “who” for both object and subject uses in our speech. This pervades all educational levels and is regarded as perfectly acceptable colloquial English. In your written work intended for publication, the way your characters speak determines how closely the prescribed who/whom uses are observed in dialogue and in first-person narrative that reflects the speech habits of the narrating character. But virtually all publishers will expect you to know the proper uses of these two pronouns and to apply those uses when appropriate, and you’d better believe it. So get over any lurking notions that using “whom” is archaic and silly and that your publisher won’t care if you don’t do it. Writers have been debating the need for the use of “whom” for an awful long time now, but it has managed to endure through the centuries as an element of standard grammar and is not going anywhere anytime soon; you can set your mind to that.

     Who is a subject pronoun. It executes a verb; it does something. Therefore, if the pronoun is in the subject role—is doing something—use “who”:
Who showed up last?
I don’t know who broke the door.

     Whom is an object pronoun. It has something done to it. If the who/whom pronoun is playing the part of the object, use “whom”:
Whom did you email about this?  “Whom” is the object of the verb “email.”

     A who-or-whom pronoun that is the object of a preposition is usually “whom.” However, when the object of the preposition is not only the pronoun itself but, in effect, an entire relative clause containing the pronoun, make your who-or-whom decision based on the pronoun’s function within that relative clause. If that sounds screwy, here’s how it shakes out in practice:
Give the envelope to whoever arrives first.“whoever arrives first” is a clause that is the object of the preposition “to.” Within that clause, “whoever” is the subject executing the verb “arrives.”
Give the envelope to whomever you like.  “whomever you like” is the object clause. Within it, “whomever” is the receiver of the action, i.e., the object, of the verb “like.”

     Here are a couple of shortcuts that can help you in certain situations without the necessity of figuring anything out:
     First, if any verb immediately follows the pronoun, the right pronoun is who:
Who is that pecking at the window?
I don’t care who said it. I don’t believe it.
Whoever knows about the merger will be there tonight.
     Second, if any quantifier (many of, some of, all of, a few of, etc.) comes just before the pronoun, use “whom”:
The cowboys, many of whom had seen the shooting, weren’t talking.
Raquel looked in at the “New Fathers” class students, a few of whom were not men.

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