Ink Slinger #ProTip

The Whom Problem

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] am not, in my normal life outside of editing, the grammar police. I don’t correct people on social media when they have typos or they use a word incorrectly or they swap their for they’re. Unless you’re a professional writing social media posts about professional things or representing professional entities, I really don’t care.

For instance, I have a personal Facebook page, and I have a business Facebook page. I have a personal G+ page, and I have a business G+ page. (I only have a personal Twitter account.) My personal Facebook and G+ pages are just me: the mom, the wife, the friend, and the loud person with an opinion. I will use text and chat shorthand happily. I will post without checking my typos or autocorrections—and oh dear, the autocorrections! (I often leave them just because they’re funny.) Basically, my personal pages are about me, the human being. And there’s a good chance I used my phone to post. Hello, tiny keyboard, meet the button mashers. Those personal posts do not cross-post to my business pages, although I do cross-post my business pages into my personal feeds.

My business pages represent my business, and anything that comes from them should be proofread and grammatically correct. Even more so for my particular business of editing, I should add. When I find a mistake after I’ve posted, I want to crawl under a rock every time, which is as it should be. Essentially, if Company B puts out a tweet with an error, I notice. If the CEO of Company B puts out a tweet with an error under a personal account, I barely notice. That’s my social media disclaimer.

But hey, I still have some pet peeves, just like you do. I really dislike when people try to use words they don’t know how to use simply because they think it makes them sound smart. They may not consciously know that’s what they’re doing; they may actually believe they know how to use those words. But the simple fact that they don’t know how to use those words is exactly why you can tell that they only use those words to sound smarter or more credible. Otherwise (and this is the editor of fiction in me), why would you use those words? Most people don’t actually use those words in casual conversation. There are several words that set off alarms for me, but I won’t get into them now. Today is meant to focus on only one word.

[wc_fa icon=”star” margin_left=”” margin_right=””][/wc_fa] WHOM [wc_fa icon=”star” margin_left=”” margin_right=””][/wc_fa]

Whom is an objective pronoun. Whom is the object of a verb or a preposition. [standout fx=”highlighter”]Whom never does anything.[/standout] Just for clarity, who is a subjective pronoun. Who is the subject of a verb or a preposition. Who has an action.

Objective:  for whom the bell tolls
for (preposition modifying the object)
whom (the object)
the bell (the subject)
tolls (the verb)

Subjective: who tolls the bell
who (the subject)
tolls (verb)
the bell (object)

If you get into a bind, try replacing it with a different pronoun. You can usually spot the right pronoun pretty easily when you do that. If you can replace it with a pronoun that ends with -m, you’re golden. Change the gender for the test if you must, as she or her won’t be as obvious.

Objective: for he the bell tolls or for him the bell tolls
Subjective: him tolls the bell or he tolls the bell

The twisty part comes in when there is a subordinate clause involved. It’s the bit that comes after the comma.

There are ten students on the bus, many of whom are carrying backpacks.

Dependent clauses will have a their own subjects and verbs. Many is the subject of the verb are. Of modifies whom. That makes of whom the prepositional phrase. Don’t let the verb following whom fool you. Luckily, you can still apply the replacement trick, so you don’t even have to remember what a preposition or a dependent clause is if you don’t want to get that deep into grammar.

There are ten students on the bus, many of them are carrying backpacks. 

They clearly doesn’t work there unless you remove the prepositional phrase. 

My descriptivist nature immediately wants to say just don’t use whom; it’s antiquated and overly formal. If you’re trying to use it; you’re probably overdoing it. You can see the sentence loosen up when you remove those formal constraints.

The teacher to whom you gave your homework is my sister.
The teacher you gave your homework to is my sister.

And in fiction, your editor might even allow

The teacher who you gave your homework to is my sister.

Depending on your editor’s level of descriptivism and the voice of your story, it might be acceptable, as that’s how most people speak in casual conversation despite being grammatically incorrect. Language changes with the society that uses it. That also makes it the prime reason why you should probably use who over whom in social media anyway. Few people will notice the incorrect who, but many people will notice the whom, correct or not. Of course, just switching the words around won’t always retain the meaning. Be aware of your intent. There is a distinct difference between for whom the bell tolls and who tolls the bell for.

The next time you find yourself trying to use whom, double-check that you’re using it correctly. If you’re already in good shape with who vs. whom, fantastic. If you’re questioning which to use, don’t guess. It’s an easy check, and you’ll up your grammar cred. 

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Cheryl Murphy is Asian with brown hair in a single braid and a smirk.

ACES: the society for editing


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