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Pronouns and Case

Who Versus Whom (or Should I Just Shoot Myself Now?)

Contemporary writer and humorist Calvin Trillin once claimed, “Whom is a word invented to make everyone sound like a butler. Nobody who is not a butler has ever said it out loud without feeling just a little bit weird.”

Trillin isn't alone in his frustration with who/whom. More than half a century ago, a professor named Arthur H. Weston voiced his feelings over who/whom this way:

  • It's hard to devise an appropriate doom
  • For those who say who when they ought to say whom.
  • But it's even more hard to decide what to do
  • With those who say whom when they ought to say who.
Quoth the Maven

Remember, the main purpose of language is communication. Good grammar is “that language which creates the least discomfort among the largest number of participants.” (Robert Pooley)

Strictly Speaking

Don't get scared by who/whom in questions. At the beginning of a question, use who if the question is about the subject or whom if the question is about the object.

No one will argue that who and whom are the most troublesome pronouns in English. Anyone who has ever grappled with who and whom might use stronger language than that. Here are some reasons why who/whom are so perplexing:

  • Who is used as an interrogative pronoun in questions.
  • Who is also used as a relative pronoun in complex sentences (see Sentences for more on this).
  • Whoever is usually found only in complex sentences (again, see Sentences).
  • Who knows how to use these suckers?

We can't do much about the national debt, frown lines, or those Mets, but we can straighten out who/whom use. Even though I discussed who/whom earlier in this section, these little words cause such distress that they deserve their own subsection. Let's start by looking back at our pronoun-use chart for a moment.

 Nominative (Subject CaseObjective (Object Case)Possessive (Ownership)
Singularwhowhomwhose
 whoeverwhomeverwhosoever
Pluralwhowhomwhose
 whoeverwhomeverwhosoever

This Hurts You More Than It Hurts Me

Only three itty-bitty rules to know for who/whom:

  1. Use who or whoever when the pronoun is the subject of a verb.
    • Who said, “I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants?”
    • Who won the prize for employee of the month—the guy from accounting who was just fired?
    • I wonder who thought up that bright idea.
  2. Use who or whoever when the pronoun is the predicate nominative.
    • The winner was who?
    • No one knew who the loser was.
  3. Use whom or whomever when the pronoun is the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition.
    • Whom did he marry this time?
    • Of course, he can marry whomever he wants (as long as it's not me).
    • With whom were you dancing at his wedding?

I Dare You

The proof is in the pudding, or something like that. Take your best shot with these questions. Circle who or whom in each sentence.

  1. From (who/whom) did you buy that wooden nickel?
  2. (Who/Whom) is your parole officer?
  3. The boss selected (who/whom)?
  4. (Who/Whom) in the office knows how to operate the phone system?
  5. With (who/whom) have you agreed to carpool?
  6. No one knew (whom/who) the bean counter was.

Answers

  1. whom (object of the preposition from)
  2. who (subject of the verb)
  3. whom (direct object of the verb)
  4. who (subject of the verb)
  5. whom (object of the preposition with)
  6. who (predicate nominative)
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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