The Second Most Common Mistake

rogersgeorge on December 8th, 2017

—in English! In English! I’m sure this is nowhere near the top of the list of mistakes humans make. This might not even be second on the English grammar list, but I think it comes right after the one where someone, trying deliberately to be high-class, says “between him and I.”

This error is using “whom” when “who” is actually correct (or in this case, “whomever” and “whoever.”). First, the rule: when you have a subordinate clause, work from the inside out. Here’s an example of the mistake, from Edge of Adventure. Look at the first panel in the bottom row. Can you tell why he should have said “whoever”?

Yes, “to” is a preposition, and the clause that comes after it is its object. But that clause has its own subject and verb! And since we work from the inside out, being the subject of that clause takes precedence over the whole clause being an object, so it’s “whoever did this.” If you really want a “whom” in that sentence you could say something like “…to whomever I find on the trail.” Now “I” is the subject, and “whomever” is the direct object of “I find.” Make sense?

So sometimes you have permission to use “who.” Be careful.

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A Trick of the Trade

rogersgeorge on November 24th, 2017

I have mentioned the trickiness of using “whom” several times over the years. I predict the word will pretty much vanish from the language in the not-so-near future; in the meantime, we have to deal with it. Use it wrong, and those in the know will hoot and holler. This is not okay if that person in the know has some kind of serious influence, such as deciding whether to hire you.

Occasionally I made passing reference to a good solution to the whole “whom” problem, but I recently ran into someone who used this good solution, and that suggested to me that maybe I should give the solution a little more emphasis. My informant is Erika Moen, author of the site Oh Joy Sex Toy. Yes, it’s an educational site about sex. And I must warn you, she’s not a fundamental baptist! Her material is not pornographic, but it’s really candid, and she covers topics that I don’t think will ever apply to me (blush), but her intent is to inform and to do so in a way that communicates well. You have been warned! Here’s the quote:

I have a bunch of friends who I love. Friends THAT I love? Friends for whom I feel love? I have some friends and I love them.

(Actually, the first sentence should have “whom,” and then it’d be right, hoot holler) But she dealt with the uncertainty by rewriting the whole sentence. Rewriting is an excellent way to eliminate those difficult passages where you’re not sure about what word or what phrase is correct.

Start over and rewrite the passage!

You might have to reflect to get the rewording to say what you want, but it’s worth the effort. You’ll eliminate having written something incorrectly; you won’t be a bad example to some beginner; and the chance is good that your rewritten passage will be more compelling than your first attempt.

Solve your problem by getting rid of it!

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.”

Test Answers 1

rogersgeorge on September 6th, 2017

Back in March of 2017 I posted a writing test. If you missed it and are curious, follow this link before you go any farther.

I’d have posted the answers sooner, but someone asked me to send the test to their dad first. Well, Dad never responded, and I got distracted by other things, hence the tardiness.

So here are some of the questions. More in another post.

  1. “The technology,” he wrote, “is not limited to only aviation.”
  2. Best known of the two is Enrico Fermi, the Italian intellectual giant who escaped from fascist Italy to America after winning a Nobel Prize for his research in nuclear physics.
  3. On February 23, 1997, NBC broadcast the film in its three-and-a-half-hour entirety, uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, as per Spielberg’s request.
  4. Who do you think you match with?
  5. 1856   The Republican Party holds it’s first national meeting.  (© Ducksters.  I wasn’t going to embarrass them, but they put a copyright symbol on it. Used without permission)

And here are the answers.

  1. In English you can split an infinitive, but this sentence is better if you don’t. It should be “…only to aviation.”
  2. When you’re comparing two things, use “better.” “Best” is for when you have three or more.
  3. This one really irritates me. It’s “per” not “as per.” Per means according to, so as per would mean as according to. Nonsense. A good example of being too fancy, which, in writing, I call a pretentiousism.
  4. Everybody has trouble with “whom,” especially in questions. Turn the sentence around: Do you think you match with him? The “m” is the give-away. Whom is the object of the preposition; objective case.
  5. Arg! I can’t believe a professional writer got this wrong. It’s ITS! no apostrophe in the possessive! His, her, its.

So there’s your dose of self-righteousness for the day. You knew all those, right? If you didn’t before, go take the test.

Another Whom Post

rogersgeorge on January 28th, 2017

Just because I think it’s funny. Thanks, Scott.

Remember (I hope) “whom” is for whenever you need it as the object of a preposition or the subject of an infinitive. Even if it’s the first word in a Question! Harrumpf.