Do you find yourself perplexed about when to use "whom" vs. "who"?
Are you more concerned about the fate of "whom" than the Mayweather-McGregor smackdown scheduled for August 26?
Do you own a tee-shirt like the one shown above?
If you've answered yes to any of these questions, please read on. Otherwise, there's plenty of other megafights you can read about.
"The Bell Tolls for 'Whom'"
The Wall Street Journal recently posted an article about the waning usage of the word "whom." It detailed the backlash from grammarians including British scriptwriter James T. Harding, who founded the Whom Appreciation Society — a Facebook group of 80 members (soon to be 81, as soon as I publish this post). After joining the Facebook group, I plan to work on my pithy headline-writing skills. I'll never be able to compete with the Wall Street Journal's "The Bell Tolls for 'Whom.'" I'll spend the rest of my life striving for that standard of wit.
I try hard not to be a grammar snob. I've made my fair share of grammatical mistakes. And I understand that certain concessions have to be made for readability, hence the recent adoption of the singular "they." Yet with "whom," still accepted by AP, the Chicago Manual of Style and other major style guides, I join those who believe there is reason to keep it separate from its counterpart.
One of my favorite books on grammar and style, Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay, describes "who and whom" as "among the most nettlesome pronouns, so much so that many would be happy to have whom excised from our language."
On this point I disagree with the book, but I do agree with a later assessment, that people who are trying hard to sound refined often use "whom" incorrectly. It is acceptable to use "who" incorrectly, but unacceptable to use "whom" where "who" would suffice. Apparently it's socially acceptable to be incorrect, but unacceptable to appear pretentious. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I'll move on ...
Who vs. Whom
As with most things in life, I like to use the simplest method to get at the correct answer. In the case of who/whom (and several other grammatical quandaries), I use the substitution method. Here's how it works:
- Start with a troublesome sentence: Choose the guy who/m ate the pie.
- Invert the sentence into a question: Who/m ate the pie?
- Answer the question: He ate the pie.
- "Who" goes with "he" or "she"; "whom" goes with "him" or "her". So because you chose "he" in the sentence above, go with "who": Choose the guy who ate the pie.
Let's try another one; this time, we'll skip #1 and jump right into a question.
- Invert the sentence into a question: Who/m will you pester?
- Answer the question: I will pester her.
- "Who" goes with "he" or "she"; "whom" goes with "him" or "her". So because you chose "her" in the sentence above, go with "whom": Whom will you pester?
Grammar Girl makes it even simpler in her explanation, which is why I love her:
If you want to get technical about it (which I rarely do), you are to use "whom" when referring to the object (direct or indirect) of a sentence, and "who" when referring to the subject. OK it's not actually that technical, but not everyone remembers their sentence diagramming days of middle school with great fondness. So I prefer the substitution method.
Who cares? To whom does this subject relate?
Maybe only grammar snobs. After all, I don't think you make the case for the life-saving or money-saving quality of "whom" the same way you can for the serial comma. But I do think that there is something to be said for speaking and writing clearly, and upholding the rules of the English language as best we can until they are made obsolete.
Without prompting, I never correct anyone on their usage of any word because I'm a) just as guilty much of the time, and b) don't want to lose friends. But in a formal editing capacity, or when informally asked about the proper usage of a word, I like to have an answer. I will continue to edit "who" to "whom" when necessary, unless a client specifies me to do otherwise. In such cases, I choose to abide by the policy of Eataly, a delicious Italian eatery that I truly hope is coming to DC soon. On the wall as you enter Eataly, a sign outlines "Our Policy" as:
- The customer is not always right.
- Eataly is not always right.
- Through our differences, we create harmony.
I'm not in the business of cured meats and home-spun pasta (unfortunately), but I am in the business of words and clarity. As long as I'm getting paid to sharpen sentences, hone headlines and tailor tweets, I'll do it with the only integrity I know: grammatical correctness. That's just who I am.