Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

The Two Strategies for Using Whom

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fwtbtIt’s a tricky little word, folks, and a lot of people aren’t sure when or how to use it. So, consciously or not, most of us adopt one of two strategies for whom:

Strategy One:

I don’t know what the heck this whom is all about, so I’m going to avoid it. Besides, it sounds pretentious and awkward, so screw it. I’m sticking with who all the time.

Strategy Two:

I’m not sure when to use it, but when in doubt, whom seems more formal and has to be right. So I’m going to just tack that little m on wherever it feels right.

So which is the best strategy? And what really is the right way to use whom?

Let me put it clearly – Strategy Two is bad.

Unless you can explain to someone else how to use whom, stick with Strategy One. It’s easier, it’s common and it’s clear. Everyone knows what you’re talking about, even though you won’t win any international grammar awards (are there such things?). Plus, I agree – using whom, especially incorrectly, sounds pretentious and draws attention to the construction of your language, rather than the meaning behind it.

However … I’m holding out hope that by the end of this post you’ll be able to relate to your friends how to use this linguistic bugbear. And in that case, you’ll be on your way to international grammar award glory by using it correctly … and that definitely does not mean sprinkling your whoms all over the place like a glitter fairy on speed.

The very quick explanation:

If you can replace whom with him, you’re golden.

–    You gave a ride to him?
–    You gave a ride to whom?

Perfect. Whom/him works well here.

The more detailed explanation:

First, I’ll refer you to my earlier post on cases to clarify subjects and objects.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Who is just like other pronouns in the nominative case (you did read that other post, right?). Basically, it’s just like I, he, she, or we. Except we don’t know whether it should be he or she or we, so we stick who in there to ask the question.

– She took him home.
– Who took him home?

Both she and who are the subjects – the person doing the taking. So any time you’re looking for the subject, use who.

Whom, then, is just like pronouns, too, except it’s like him, her, us and me. You use these when they’re the object of the sentence. When something’s being done to or for them, they’re not doing the acting and therefore aren’t the subject, but are rather an object.

–    She took him home.
–    Whom did she take home?

Again, notice the whom/him connection here. She is the subject of the sentence, but she’s taking him home, making him the object. Any time it’s not the subject of the sentence or clause, you’re safe to use whom.

Your recap:

When you’re asking about who is doing something, you want who. (Who drank all my homebrew?) There’s someone doing the drinking. But when something is being done to or for someone, you want to use whom. (To whom did you give all my homebrew?)

But really, if your homebrew’s all gone, when to use whom is the least of your worries.

Now, go forth and use whom with confidence. And don’t forget to thank me when you win some international grammar competitions.

Written by Nathanael Green

March 19, 2009 at 8:22 pm

Posted in Common Mistakes, Grammar, Writing Tips

Tagged with , ,

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