Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 12: Who are You?

Sometimes there are things in the English language that are just, well...icky. One of those things is distinguishing when to use who or whom. There are some tricks that can help with this. Even better, it appears change may be on the horizon.

The grammatical explanations of these words declare who is the subject pronoun and whom is the object pronoun. But those descriptions don't do a whole lot to help us decide when to use which word. Fortunately, the answer is in the question. Seriously. If we were doing algebra, it's kind of like rearranging an equation to isolate X in order to determine the value of X.

If the question can be answered who a word like "he" or "she," then the word who is appropriate. Here's a helpful trick: "he" and "she" both end in vowels, just like who. The word whom uses a similar trick. Don't think it's sexist, but if the question can be answered with "him," then the right word is whom. The memory trick here is to remember "him" and whom both end in m. Now let's try some examples.
Example 1:
Attempted question: Who/Whom is at the door?
(Try him and he)
Him is at the door. (No way)
He is at the door. (Yes! So the right word is who.)
Final question: Who is at the door?
Example 2:
Attempted question: Who/Whom is the present for?
(Try him and he)
The present is for he. (Strange.)
The present is for him. (Hooray! The right word is whom.)
Final question: Whom is the present for?
Things get a little messier because who and whom are also used in sentences that aren't questions. This requires some rearranging to determine the right word.

Example: Mr. Grippando, whom I trust immensely, will manage the office.

In this case, we extract the bit of the sentence with the offending word (whom), make it a question and apply the old trick: "Whom do I trust immensely?" The answer: "I trust him." So the right word is whom.

Another example: Tom, who recommended this barbecue, lives next door.

Again, extract the part of the sentence with who and turn it into a question: "Who recommended the barbecue?" Answer: "He recommended the barbecue." So we know the correct answer is who.

Now for the better news: In the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, Gordon Jarvie writes, "This [who or whom] rule is breaking down in informal spoken English." Similarly, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English notes, "When speaking, most people think it is acceptable to use who instead of whom."

So we may not have to worry about the whole who versus whom thing too much, except perhaps in the most formal writing. Is it possible that whom may eventually evolve out of the language? Methinks it may, forsooth.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; The Gregg Reference Manual.

Songs from this Episode: "Who Are You?" by The Who; "Who Do You Love?" by The Sapphires.

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