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Using English Properly: Misuse of Who and Whom

1. Introduction

Last month I posted a blog on the misuse of personal pronouns and promised that I would write another blog on the use and misuse of the relative pronouns, who and whom.

A relative pronoun introduces a relative clause. A relative pronoun connects a subordinate clause, referred to as a relative clause, to an independent (or main) clause in a sentence. For example, in the sentence, ‘We saw a child who was crying’, the main clause is ‘we saw a child’ and the relative clause is ‘who was crying’. The ‘who’ in the relative clause connects the relative clause to an element in the main clause, which is called the antecedent. The antecedent in the quoted sentence is ‘child’.

We have several relative pronouns in English, including who, what, that, and which. None of them is inflected, except who. In other words, only who can change its form. And it changes it depending upon whether it functions as the subject or the object of the relative clause. This brings us back to the discussion in the previous blog about the different cases a pronoun can take. There we saw that it can either take the subjective form or the objective form. (Actually, there is also the possessive form, but I have left it out of consideration since it usually not misused.) You will also remember from the previous blog that we recognize two objective cases, the direct object and the indirect object. However, the spelling of the pronoun in the direct object and the indirect object is the same, so that makes it a bit easier.

Who is the subjective form of the pronoun, while whom is the objective form. It is important that you are able to use the different forms correctly at least in formal writing and speech. However, in informal writing and speech people normally use the subjective form even if the pronoun functions as an object.

2. Examples

Now let us look at some examples.

1. ‘We know whom had to leave early’.

We all realize (I hope) that this is wrong. It doesn’t sound right, but the real problem is that whom functions as the subject of the clause ‘whom had to leave early. And therefore we know that the pronoun must be who.

2. ‘The obnoxious child who we met is the child of that woman’.

Here, who functions as the direct object of the relative clause, ‘who we met’. Who cannot be the subject of that clause, since we is its subject. Thus, the pronoun must be whom.

3. ‘He asked us who the lecturer was speaking about’. The problem here is the same as in the previous example. The subject of the relative clause, ‘who the lecturer was speaking about’ is ‘the lecturer’. Thus, who must be its object. In fact, it is an indirect object, since it is the object of the preposition about’. This will be clear if you rephrase the clause as ‘about who the lecturer was speaking’.[1] The pronoun must therefore take the objective form, whom.

It is sometimes difficult to recognize the correct form of the pronoun if the sentence is in the form of a question.

4. ‘Whom is over there, she asked?’

5. ‘Who should I select, do you think?’

In the first sentence, whom is incorrect. It is the subject of the relative clause, so it must take the who form. In contrast, in the second sentence I is the subject of the relative clause, so who must take the objective form, whom.

There is actually a very convenient trick by which you can determine the correct form of the pronoun. You will find it in the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, which I mentioned in the previous blog. You can also find it on GrammarBook.com under the tab, ‘English Rules’. And it is referred to in other texts as well. The test is this: Replace the who or whom, with a personal pronoun, he, him; she, her; or they, take your pick.

Thus, in example 1, you would say ‘he had to leave early’ and so who is the correct form of the pronoun.

In example 2, you would say ‘we met her, so whom is correct.

In example 3, you would say, ‘the lecturer was speaking about them, so whom is correct.

In example 4, you would ask, ‘is she over there?’, so who is correct.

And in example 5, you would ask, ‘should I select him?’ so whom is correct.

The compound forms, whoever and whomever follow the same rules as you will see from the following examples.

6. ‘Give the book to whomever answers the door’

It might look as though the correct form should be whomever, since it seems to be the object of the preposition to. However, whoever is correct, because it is the subject of the clause ‘whoever answers the door’ and that clause as a whole is the object of the preposition to. Using the above trick, you would ask, ‘Does  he answer the door?’

7. In contrast, if the sentence is ‘Give the book to whoever you wish’, the correct form is whomever, because it the object of ‘you wish’ and the whole clause is the object of the preposition to.

3. Further Comments

You should be aware that sometimes it is all right to omit the relative pronoun. For example, it is correct to say, ‘The woman I spoke with yesterday was recently widowed’. This can be convenient if you don’t know whether the pronoun should be in the subjective or objective form. (If you were to use the relative pronoun, it should be whom, ‘The woman whom I met yesterday…’ You can test it by stating, ‘I met her’, so the objective case is required.)

Be wary of sentences which include insertions that can throw you off your quest for the correct pronoun. For example, someone might say, ‘Tom is the person whom I think will win the race’. The problem here is the inserted ‘I think’. If you move it to the beginning of the sentence, ‘I think that Tom is the person whom will win the race’, your quest for the correct pronoun becomes simple. Alternatively, you can move ‘I think’ to the end of the sentence, with the same result. It is now clear that the pronoun is not the object of ‘I think’ Instead, it is the subject of the relative clause, ‘who will win the race’, so who is the correct form. You can, of course, also rewrite the sentence and say simply, ‘I think Tom will win the race’. Then you avoid the problem altogether.

[1]    You may have been taught the ‘rule’ that you should never end a sentence in a preposition. And so the first rendition of the sentence is this example seems to be incorrect, since it ends in the preposition about. But in fact, there is no such rule. It is a myth. Winston Churchill is said to have debunked it. An overeager young Foreign Office secretary was charged with ‘correcting’ Sir Winston’s speeches and he abhorred his habit of ending sentences with prepositions, so he always corrected the ‘errors’. Finally, Sir Winston had enough. He recorrected his latest speech and sent it back to the Foreign Office with the red-lined notation, ‘This the kind of errant pedantry up with which I will not put’. Whether he actually wrote this or something like it is unclear (there are many versions in circulation), but it certainly sounds Churchillian.

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