Who(m)?

A lot of people have a hard time figuring out when to use “whom.” Some writers avoid using it altogether, while others drop it into sentences any time they want to sound cultured. There’s no good reason for either approach.

Here’s a simple trick that help you sort it out, and you won’t have to suffer through a discussion about subjective pronouns or the objective case.

In fact, this trick is a lot like the one in our most recent post on sorting out I, me, she, her, he, him, they and them.

Here’s what you do: Try the sentence with “he” and “him,” which sound a lot like “who” and “whom.”

So if you want to get information about the keynote speaker for an upcoming convention, which of these questions would you ask?

Him is speaking?
He is speaking?

That’s an easy choice. Now simply substitute “who” for “he.”

Who is speaking?

Let’s try another pair:

You invited he to the meeting?
You invited him to the meeting?

Once again, an obvious choice. So now you substitute “whom” for “him.”

You invited whom to the meeting?

Most people would turn that sentence around:

Whom did you invite to the meeting?

That’s fine. The answer to the question would still be “I invited him,” so the right word to use in the question would still be “whom.”

There’s a more general problem, though. Fewer and fewer people use “whom” anymore. So even when the word is used properly, some readers might raise and eyebrow and think, “Looks like somebody is getting rather hoity-toity here.” That runs smack into one of our prime directives: Don’t make your readers stumble over anything if you can help it.

Our culture has been wrestling with this one for a long time. Way back in the 1950s, Johnny Carson hosted a TV game show called “Who Do You Trust?” By now you can easily figure out that it should have been “Whom Do You Trust?” Carson often got ribbed about the bad grammar when he appeared on other shows in those years. Today, I’m not sure how many people would even notice the error.

So I hope you’ll stand firm with “whom” as you bring enlightenment to some of the darker regions of popular culture. But I won’t look down on you if sometimes you have to grit your teeth and serve up a “who” when you know better.

For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole grammar and lose his audience?

 


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