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Who Are You?

July 20, 2013

For_whom_movieposterBeing a professional editor and former lexicographer, I waffle between strict grammarian and bemused usage observer, so even I have to take some of my grammar rants with a grain of salt. I mean, pop culture has so many examples of bad grammar but good choices. The “who-whom” dilemma is a good one to illustrate this phenomenon. For instance, would anyone have remembered or sung along to the theme for The Ghostbusters if the chorus had been “Whom you gonna call?” And you know just what Little Milton is singing about without insisting he change to “Who’s Cheatin’ Whom?” And, although I wouldn’t consider The Who the most grammatically correct rock group in the world, at least their eponymous song uses this prounoun correctly.

Who vs. Whom

Nevertheless, when you’re writing a paper or a book and need tidier grammar, you need to know the difference between “who” and “whom,” when to use which one. The easiest way to figure it out is to substitute another pronoun for “who” in your sentence and use the same form. So, for example, in the sentence below, substitute “she” for “who” and you can see that “who” is the wrong choice here.

The house is on fire and I don’t know who to call!

The correct usage in this sentence should be “The house is on fire and I don’t know whom to call!” The more formal way to explain the difference is this: Use “who” for nominative case uses (i.e., subjects of sentences and clauses); use “whom” for objective case uses (i.e., direct and indirect objects, objects of prepositions).

For further explanation, Louise at Glossophilia writes an excellent piece about “whomever” and how to use it (which actually parallels what I’ve already said: who = nominative case, whom = objective case).

The Demise of Whom?

All of that said, I happened upon an article in The Atlantic from earlier this year, which has some surprising ideas about the demise of “whom”—surprising in that the lexicographer in me tends to agree with the arguments for eliminating it. Those arguments—it’s on a steep decline anyway, its use is confusing and can be tough to explain, our culture’s increasing informality identifies anyone who uses “whom” as pedantic nerds—don’t hold water for editors.

But as a very wise editor I once knew always said (in line with William Safire, quoted in The Atlantic article), “When in doubt, leave it out.” (She’d be angry if she knew I used her rule of thumb to cheer the dismissal of “whom,” but comparing her to William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter, will make her stomping mad!)

Given the rampant misuse of “whom” and the disparaging regard most of the public has for proper grammar, perhaps eliminating “whom” altogether is a better solution than struggling against the overwhelming force of improper usage.

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