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The Word "Whom" -- Love It or Avoid It?

Posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 1:25 AM

A strict grammatical use of "whom" instead of "who" will set a formal tone. Is that what you want in every article? And is "whom" worth the effort?

By June Casagrande

I fielded a question recently about one of my favorite subjects: "whomever." Here's the email:

"Normally I have no difficulty with who/whom. I do when it comes to a sentence like 'Give it to who(m)ever wants it.' If the rephrasing would be 'he wants it,' it would be 'whoever.' If the rephrasing would be 'give it to him,' it would be 'whomever.' Which would you use?"

Avoid Whom!

This subject illustrates one of my favorite pieces of advice about grammar: Maybe it's best to avoid "whom" altogether.

"Whom" and "whomever," language authorities agree, are for formal speech and writing. If you're involved in a barroom brawl, no grammar book would insist you communicate in terms like "For whom was that obscene gesture intended?"

Setting an Article's Tone

What constitutes formal speech or writing? The language authorities leave that up to the writer. You choose whether or not your message should be formal the same way you decide whether to wear a sport jacket or to crack a joke in a business meeting. It's personal judgment, not rocket science.

But, unless you're writing a doctoral thesis or a speech for the queen, you might want to avoid "whom" altogether because, once you start using it -- once you send the message that you're being formal in an article -- you have to keep using it. And you may be getting in over your head.

Many people know how to use "who" and "whom" in simple sentences. "Who" is a subject pronoun. "Whom" is an object pronoun. Subject pronouns perform the action of the verb: Who wants cake? Who knows? Who is on the list? Object pronouns work as objects of verbs or prepositions. Whom did you see? With whom was she dancing?

See how, in the penultimate example, "whom" is what's being seen -- not what's doing the seeing? So it's the object of the action, not the doer of it. But in the last example, "whom" is correct because prepositions such as "with" and "to" take objects ("with him," not "with he"; "to us," not "to we").

An Easy Choice?

Once you understand this, choosing between "who" and "whom" can be as easy as choosing between "he" and "him." But "whoever" and "whomever" aren't as easy because often they sit in a strange position where you could make the case that they're both a subject and an object.

Look at our original example: "Give it to who(m)ever wants it."

Here we have a verb, "wants," which needs a subject ("he wants," not "him wants").

But we also have a preposition, "to," which needs an object ("give it to him," not "to he").

Or so it would appear. But there's a grammar issue at play here that goes beyond the basics. In a sentence like our example, the object isn't a single word. It's a whole clause. And clauses need subjects.

In our example, the object of the preposition "to" isn't just a pronoun like "whomever." The object is the entire clause that follows, complete with the verb "wants." That verb needs a subject -- a job that only a subject pronoun like "whoever" is equipped to handle.

So the correct form is "Give it to whoever wants it." Not whomever.

But watch what happens when we tweak the sentence a bit: "Give it to whomever you want." Suddenly, the object form is the right choice because the pronoun is no longer the subject of the verb. The subject of "want" is "you." "Whomever" is the object of that want, hence the M.

The shorter forms "who" and "whom" can sometimes work this way. Compare "the man whom I marry" with "the man who marries me." Both are correct. In the first, the pronoun is the object of the verb "marry." But in the second, it's the subject.

Beware

When you set a formal tone by using "whom," you need to know that sometimes whole clauses can be objects.

Or sidestep the whole sticky subject by just not using "whom" at all.

June Casagrande is an experienced editor and writer based in Pasadena, CA. She is author of The Best Punctuation Book, Period, available on Amazon.

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