When does it matter whether you use who or whom?

Note: The WritingEssentials blog is on hiatus. Meanwhile, favorite posts will be published with updates. Ellen ~~

This is an update of an earlier post, Who or whom? Whom cares?” dealing with the distinction between who and whom and the recommendations when to use them. As I was watching the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, I heard a reporter use the whom correctly,” which – as discussed below – is no small feat since the speaker must decide on the case of the relative pronoun before the sentence is finished.

Within one week, I came across three startling instances of the use of the words who and whom – one “correct” and two “incorrect.” One was in the NYTimes 10/1/20 headline: “Drudge Report Has Turned on Trump, Whom It Boosted in 2016.” Another use occurred in a novel I was reading for my book group: in describing a character’s state of mind, the author wrote that the woman didn’t know “whom she was.” The third use occurred in an obituary: after a list of relatives, the piece read “who he adored.”

Can you tell which use is “correct” and which is “incorrect”?

The first use in the headline is correct, and it caught my attention precisely because it is correct, but falling out of usage. The second two examples are incorrect, which also caught my attention. While I’m willing to give a pass on the use in the obituary because it is an increasingly common one (and the composers had more pressing things to deal with than “proper grammar”), the one from the novel is harder to forgive since the author – or at least her editor – should have known better. It’s represents what one commentator describes as “a form of one-upmanship some employ to appear sophisticated” (grammarbook.com).

This an infatuation with whom has real-life consequences. In a piece for CBS News (3/22/2015), “Whom: The object of affection for the grammar police,” Faith Salie cites a study of online dating profiles which found that men who used the word whom in their descriptions received 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents whether they used the word correctly or not.

Who and whom are pronouns. We’ve talked about pronouns in several posts including the ones on possessive and reflexive pronouns, pronoun antecedent agreement, and vague pronoun reference. In these posts, we covered many of the basics of pronouns, including how they substitute for nouns: for example, they can be subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, subject complements, and objects of prepositions.

However, unlike nouns, pronouns change their form based upon what function they play in a sentence. This is known as case, and there are three in English: subjective (nominative), objective, and possessive.

Subjective: He wrote the book. (he functions as a subject)

Objective: Give the book to him. (him is an object)

Possessive: This is his book. (his is a pronoun showing possession, who owns the book)

In addition, who and whom can be interrogative pronouns and relative pronouns.

Anita K. Barry, in English Grammar (149), calls the interrogative pronouns (who, whom, whose, what, which) the “Wh-Questions”:

Who is going?

Whom did you call?

Whose did he borrow?

What does he want?

Which do you like?

Here, who is the subject form and whom is the object form. As we saw in the post What is grammar?, we usually identify subjects and objects by word order: Subject – Verb – Object. With some questions, this order is inverted. So, though who is going follows the usual order, whom did you call does not – the object comes first. If you straighten it out, the sentence would read you did call whom. Thus, according to traditional grammar rules, the object form whom is required. To decide if the subject or object form is required, Patricia T. O’Conner in Woe is I recommends this common device of substituting a personal pronoun: “if him fits you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel)” (7).

As stated above, who and whom (along with whose) also are relative pronouns which are used to introduce a relative clause. Relative clauses are a type of subordinate clauses that behave as an adjective, describing a noun in the main clause. A relative pronoun has different forms depending on its case (role in the clause):

Who is the subjective form

Whom is the objective form

Whose is the possessive form

Consider these examples adapted from Barry (204):

He is the architect.

The architect designed the building. (who)

He is the architect who designed the building.

The firm hired the architect. (whom)

He is the architect whom the firm hired.

The architect’s brother was hired by the firm. (whose)

He is the architect whose brother was hired by the firm.

Because relative pronouns – regardless of their function – occur at the beginning of the clause in what is usually the subject position, it can be difficult to decide between who and whom. The choice as we’ve seen depends on same principles that govern I and me (Woe is I post.) However, as Barry writes, “we have to mentally ‘unravel’ the clause to see where the repeated noun phrase was before the clause became incorporated” (96). Another calls these “convoluted contexts” causing writers to analyze the syntax before determining proper pronoun.

Of course, when we’re speaking, we don’t have time to do this since we’re usually not creating sentences in advance. For this reason, most grammarians and language mavens are more tolerant of “missuses” of who and whom in conversation. In fact, many people don’t use whom in casual speech or writing because it sounds formal, even stuffy. Even in writing, whom can make a sentence sound formal: King Edward VII gave up the throne of England for the woman whom he loved. (Because the clause in this example is restrictive – not set off by commas – the relative pronoun whom can be omitted: King Edward VII gave up the throne of England for the woman he loved. This example is from Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar 170-71).

If we are following traditional grammar rules, two instances of the quotes I begin this post with should use the objective case:

Drudge Report Has Turned on Trump, Whom It Boosted in 2016”: It boosted [him] in 2016.

the relatives “who he adored”: he adored [them]

The quote the woman didn’t know “whom she was” is trickier. Unraveled, it would appear to require the objective case because of the usual Subject-Verb-Object order. However, was is a verb of being, which is a linking verb, something discussed in the post Woe is I. A linking verb connects a subject to a word that describes or identifies, and as merriam-webster.com points out, “a linking verb is akin to an equals sign.” When that subject is a pronoun, it must be in the subjective case. Thus, the “correct” relative pronoun is who since is the subject of the clause: “who she was.”

For some, the temptation to use whom instead of who could stem from the verb know in the main clause.  Here, know is transitive, or takes a direct object, so the writer may have mistakenly believed that she should use the object form whom. However, the whole relative clause is the object of the verb, and the subject of the clause still requires the subjective form.

This mistake could have been avoided if the author followed the general tendency to use who (and whoever) as a default is considered acceptable usage, as Richard Nordquist notes. Many people care in the debate of who vs whom, a controversy that has existed for over 200 years and including wordsmiths like Noah Webster, Jacques Barzun, and Lionel Trilling. Though most web sources stick with the traditional grammar rules, Theodore M. Bernstein, a consulting editor of the New York Times, even argued that whom should be banished from the language except when it follows a preposition. So, common phrases like “to whom it may concern” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” can stay, but everything else is “who” (“Whom’s Doom” 1975 qtd in Cook and in Nordquist).

So when it comes to who or whom, who cares is the “correct” answer – both with grammarians and with common usage practice. And the obituary construction “who he adored,” though wrong by grammar book standards is perfectly acceptable.

(Resources: grammarbook.com; K. Barry, English Grammar; O’Conner, Woe is I; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Nordquist on whoever and whomever; Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line)

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