When not to use whom

rogersgeorge on January 6th, 2014

Most of the time when you run into a lesson about who and whom, it’s about using whom when you want to use who. I’ve even posted about it. (Search the site for “whom” for a few other examples.) Usually these articles compare the subject (who) with the direct object or object of a preposition (whom).

There’s another time to use “who,” but first a little background. In Indo-European and Semitic languages at least, the verb “to be” and its various forms and equivalents (seem, appear)  are somewhat special. “To be” etc. is equivalent to an equals sign , and the name for this kind of verb is a copulative. Your grade school teacher probably called them linking verbs. Copulatives couple things together. That means that a noun at the end of a sentence that uses a copulative isn’t a direct object. It’s a predicate nominative.

For example:

Tom is a dentist. Tom and Dave are dentists. They are good dentists, and they are also my cousins.

If we use and equals sign in place of the verb, the meaning is the same:

Tom = dentist; Tom and Dave = dentists.

Predicate nominatives have the same case as the subject, even though they might be where you expect a direct object. It’s the verb’s fault. Copulatives take the nominative, we say. (“We” being linguists, grammarians, and now you, I hope.) So this guy approaches the pearly gates, and St. Peter asks who it is. “It is I,” says the man. Peter mutters to himself, “Ah, an English teacher.”

So be alert! Use “who” with linking verbs. Here’s an example of a professional writer (and his editor, apparently) in a Live Science article who wasn’t paying attention:

There’s no telling whom the original owner of the teeth and finger was, but the cave where they were discovered was both a hermitage, or dwelling place, and the site of a grisly medieval massacre. [8 Disturbing Archaeological Discoveries]

That “whom” really grates. It’s not only at the beginning, where you expect nominatives, but it’s with a linking verb, which takes the nominative.

So there you have it. Two times to use who, not whom. As subjects and with linking verbs.


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Yet another comic about grammar

rogersgeorge on December 28th, 2013

Last time I featured a curmudgeon who likes to correct certain mistakes in others’ grammar. Another battle that we curmudgeons are going to lose is using lay and lie correctly. LAY is TRANSITIVE, people! Harrumpf. You always should lay SOMETHING down. When you stretch out on the bed, it’s LIE down. See? No direct object. Harrumpf again.

So this guy in Speed Bump (Dec 21, 2013) got his revenge. Too bad he’s not around to enjoy all the grammarian teeth grinding he’s causing, and I wonder what he had to pay the monument guy to engrave his tombstone that way.


I’ve mentioned this pair of verbs more than once in the past, by the way. Alas, my dear sweet wife does not belong to my grammatical camp.

Getting on your case

rogersgeorge on September 27th, 2012

I don’t know why I’m being so hard on comics lately. Usually comic artists are pretty careful about their use of language, and I have a lot of respect for them, what with having to not only draw, but also write, two very different skills, neurologically speaking. This one is from a comic I don’t read regularly. I saw a link to it on a website that I do read, and this was on the first page. I got locked onto the solecism and haven’t read anything else. It looks like it might be a nice adventure tale for those of you who like that sort of comic, PG rated, I suppose. The comic is called Valkyrie, by By Fernando Heinz Furukawa and I don’t know what the comic is about. Shame on me for generalizing after looking at only one page, but judging from the non-human sidekick and the cleavage,  it looks like it’s aimed at boys in their early teens. The link is to the page where I got this cell.

The speaker might be in character to make the goof, and the artist actually knows better, right? After all, with a Spanish/German/Japanese name, he ought to be really good at English, right?

You know what the mistake is, right? We have a nominative being used as a direct object. Nominative is the general term for what my English teacher called the subjective case, because it was used for the subject of sentences. In every other Indo-European language (far as I know) they call it the nominative.

Remember your English teacher saying that with the imperative, you have an implied subject, “you”?  So “Sit down” is really “(you) sit down.” Or in this case, (you) let Sandra and ME deal with your son’s abduction.”

I brought your attention to this example because this mistake most often happens with compound objects of prepositions (it was between him and I) and less often with a direct object. It often happens in the writing and speech of people who fancy themselves as edumacated. They picked it up from being corrected as children, when they started to say something like “Me and Tom went fishing” and the authority figure at hand said, ” ahem. Tom and I went fishing, and is that why you are so muddy?”

So how do you prevent this solecism? The culprit the compound construction. Say the sentence without the compound. Then the wrong way sounds wrong. So: “Let me deal with your son’s abduction.”

Now I think I’ll go see what happened to that son.


More about adjectives

rogersgeorge on December 10th, 2011

The last post addressed single-word adjectives, but adjectives can be a little more complicated than that.

For one thing, you can use nouns as adjectives. This is called an attributive construction, and in some circles it’s considered bad form. I’m not sure why—perhaps when you have a perfectly good related adjective lying about. I deliberately used a noun as an adjective in the last post, and you didn’t even notice, did you? (The word is “literature,” as in “literature book.”)

The other thing is that you can also have adjective phrases and clauses. (Remember—a clause has a verb in it; a phrase does not.) Adjectival phrases and clauses generally go after the word they refer to. Hence the literature book that my teacher assigned mentioned in the last post. It’s a good idea to keep your phrases and clauses together, too. Here’s an example of not doing so. It’s from the book

Better than a picture of St. Thomas, I think

The sentence makes fairly good sense, but look at it more closely. What does “to mine” go with? It goes with “similar.” And “path”? “Path” is the direct object—goes with “traveled.” In fact, the article is where it belongs, right after the verb and right before where “path” should be. Untangled, the sentence looks like this:

It turns out that he was a physicist who had traveled a path similar to mine, and he helped me see that doubt is part of the faith journey.

The original sentence was spoken, not written, and the speaker’s desire to emphasize similarity led him to move the word forward in the sentence. Perfectly normal use of emphasis. But when you write, don’t interrupt your phrases. They’ll come out clearer.

Pillow talk

rogersgeorge on December 6th, 2011

My wife suggested I post this conversation, no lie. And no pictures, either.

Recently I mentioned how to use the verbs “lie” and “lay.” “Lie” is intransitive—it doesn’t take a direct object. When you stretch out on the bed, you lie down. “Lay” is transitive—it takes a  direct object. You lay the book on the bed. Recently also I posted the hundredth post on this humble site, a post about good writing.

One fine evening, as we prepared for bed, my dear sweet wife and I were talking about the hundredth post on The Writing Rag, and things grammatical in general. As we lay there (past tense of lie), she complained that due to some recent minor surgery “I wish I could lay on my left side.” I waited two beats and said “It’s lie,” and fortunately for my life, she laughed (I long ago learned never to correct someone’s grammar unasked). Then she turned toward me, and asked, with a twinkle in her eye, “So do you wanna get laid or do you wanna get lied?”

Ah, yes, the life of a grammarian can be exciting. The question was strictly academic, of course.