Lots of People Get this Wrong

rogersgeorge on November 12th, 2017

“Who,” among other things, is an interrogatory pronoun. We use it when we ask a simple question about someone.

Who ate the last cookie?

To use “who” correctly this way, you need two things:

  1. The “who” must be first.
  2. “Who” must be the subject of the sentence.

The problem is that being the first word in the sentence is a stronger signal than being the subject of the sentence, and that leads to people using “who” when they should use “whom.” For example:

Who do you think ate the last cookie?

The subject is “you,” making that “who” be the direct object, which means you need “whom.” Here’s the sentence in declarative form to make it easier to see:

You think whom ate the cookie.

Let’s change the pronoun to make it more intuitive, because I have a surprise for you:

You think him ate the cookie.

“Huh??? Shouldn’t it be ‘You think he ate the cookie.’?” you ask.

And yes, you’d be right. “He” is the subject of the subordinate clause “-he ate the cookie,” even though the whole subordinate clause functions as the direct object. So in a declarative sentence, with the subordinate subject right there in the clause,  “he” is correct. Sorry to have to throw a grammatical weasel at you, but when you drag the word to the front of the sentence, as you must do when you ask a question, you have to use “whom” to warn your reader that you have a direct object coming up.

All that to praise the porcupine in this Grizzwells comic for getting it right:

Simple version of the rule: If the question has two verbs, use “whom.”

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That or Who?

rogersgeorge on April 10th, 2017

A quickie reminder lesson today, mainly because I found someone (Bruce Tinsley) who did it right!

Here’s the rule: “That” refers to things, “who” refers to people. Read the motto on the side of the car.

Proofread your Material!

rogersgeorge on July 31st, 2016

I feel grumpy today, so here’s the first paragraph of an article I pulled pretty much at random from some material that should have been proofread by an editor. I’m going to grouse about the writing.

Thank you to everyone that contacted their legislator, testified on a bill, or attended a committee hearing this session! You know the old saying “You when some, you lose some?” Well that about sums up the 148th General Assembly! Here is a run down of legislation and budgetary items addressed this year.

First, something they got right: They didn’t say “We’d like to thank you…” They actually said thank you. Good for them.


Goof one: People are “who,” not “that.” So it should be “…everyone who contacted…”

Goof two, check your references. It’s “Win some, lose some.”

Goof three: The question mark should go outside the quotes. It’s not part of the old saying.

Goof four: “Well” is an aside. Separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Myself, I’d have left it out and started the sentence with “That.”

Goof five: too many exclamation points. One per paragraph is a great plenty.

Goof six: “run down” should be “run-down.” It’s a compound noun.

That was the first paragraph. I shudder to read the rest of the article. To avoid embarrassment, I won’t cite my source.


An Interesting Comment

rogersgeorge on May 21st, 2016

I hardly ever get comments to this blog, but I posted a link to one of my posts on Google+ the other day, and a friend made a comment that’s not only worth repeating, but it deserves a post! Go follow the link if you want to see the cause for the comment. Here’s his comment:

I think I get it right most of the time…but still have a hard time saying, “Whom do you think you are!?”….the other thing you taught me and I keep forgetting is where the quote marks go in a sentence…not sure I got it right above…

Lorin Walker (a former boss, by the way, and still a friend) says he has trouble saying “whom do you think you are?” Well, he should have trouble saying that, but not for the reason he thinks! We usually put the subject first in English, and the nominative (subject) form of the word is indeed “who.” So we’re used to putting “who” at the beginning of a sentence.

With questions, however, the subject generally doesn’t come first, the object does, and that’s where “whom” comes in. So you generally start a question with “whom.” Except for one thing: the type of verb.

Remember predicate nominatives? They look like direct objects, except they go with linking verbs (mainly some form of “to be” but also other verbs that are equivalent to an equals sign, such as seem and appear.) So in Lorin’s example sentence, the first word goes with (is the predicate nominative of) the last word, “are”! He could say “Who do you thing you are?” with impunity, and be so correct that he’d fool a lot of amateur grammar nazis.

PS: I just now saw a headline, in the Los Angeles Times, no less:

Who does your member of Congress support for president?
A sure sign that “who” is going to be considered always correct at the beginning of a sentence. Too bad, because sometimes (such as in this headline) it’s not. You can figure out why, can’t you?
PPS: Lorin got his quote marks in the right place. End punctuation goes inside if it’s part of the quote, and outside if it’s not. Except in American English, where commas and periods always go inside.

Another Battle we’re Going to Lose

rogersgeorge on May 3rd, 2016

Okay, I favor using “whom” wherever it’s grammatically appropriate. “Whom” tends to be unpopular because you have to think to use it correctly, especially when you create a sentence that’s not a basic declarative sentence. “Whom” is still useful, though. Here’s why I think “whom” will fall out of use. This is a passage from a writer whom I respect, and who, I’m sure, knows how and when to use the word correctly. (I made the incorrect words bold, in case there was any doubt.)

It wasn’t the who-drafted-who part. I know who drafted who.

I won’t cite the source because it’s not important. You can find passages like this all over the place. I think the writer decided to use “who” to fit the tone of his writing. He no doubt knows how to write a direct object, but he decided the “when” dictated using “who,” as in, “When I’m writing to fans of professional athletics, I shouldn’t regale them with stuffy grammar techniques.”

I still think using “whom” in those sentences would be a little snappier, but hey, he’s a professional and can make his own editorial decisions. (Besides, I’m more of a curmudgeon than he.) Because more professionals are doing this, I think the battle is going the way of not using “whom” at all. I’m not quite ready for it yet.

Here’s an example of someone giving in to this movement who shouldn’t have. It’s a heading on a page of a professionally written website about one of the largest companies in the world.

Who we hire

Seems inappropriate to me to go the informal route here, especially considering the international flavor of the company. If they don’t want to say “Whom we hire,” they could write something like “The people we hire.”


PS I just ran into this sentence in my company’s Standards of Ethics and Business Conduct document. They got it right!

You are responsible for ensuring that your own conduct and the conduct of those whom you observe (and, if you are a supervisor, the conduct of those who report to you) is honest and ethical at all times and complies not only with the law but also with our policies and these Standards.