Who or Whom? A Writer’s Dilemma

The Grammar PatrolWe (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.


Whooooooo or Whom?

“Who is it?” “To whom shall I RSVP?” “Who may I ask is calling?

Who and whom can confuse even wise old owls.

Yes, these three examples are correct. In the third, vacuum out the words “may I ask” to get the simplified “Who is calling?”

Who and whom belong to that merry band of interrogative pronouns (along with cousins what, which, and whose) that ask questions. But who and whom are the ones that cause confusion. So whooooo can use who/whom tips? Everyone!

* “Who” is always a subject, either of a sentence or a clause.

Wait a sec. What’s a clause again? A clause is a group of words with both a subject and predicate. A clause can be a complete sentence or an incomplete sentence:

People notice   what you wear.
(independent clause)  (dependent clause)
(complete sentence)   (incomplete sentence)

Who has read Cutting for Stone?
(subject of sentence)

Joanne, who planted all these flowers, is an ace gardener.
(subject of dependent clause)

Think of it this way: Who is the subject of the verb planted.

Who can be tricky, as in this example:

Jamie asked about who did the cinematography.

Don’t let the preposition “about” throw you. The whole clause—“who did the cinematography”—is the object of the preposition “about.” Look at the big picture. “Who” is the subject of the clause.

* “Whom is always an object—of a verb or of a preposition.

The symphony spectacular featured whom?
(verb)       (object)

The poison pen letter was addressed to whom?
(preposition) (object)

Still flummoxed by more complex who/whom sentences?

Take this quiz. Then check out the Rescue Strategies.

Quick Who/Whom Quiz

1. Felix was the man (who/whom?) Oscar called.

2. Handsome Prince William, (who/whom?) many once considered the world’s most eligible bachelor, is, alas, now married.

3. Pedicycle drivers, (who/whom) I think can drive up to four people at once, are friendly, but not speedy.

Quiz Rescue Strategies [correct answers in blue]

1. Tip: Rearrange the sentence or clause.

Felix was the man whom Oscar called.

Rearranged: Oscar called whom?

2. Tip: Substitute a different pronoun—he/him or she/her—for who or whom.

Handsome Prince William, whom many once considered the world’s most eligible bachelor, is, alas, now married.

Clause Rearranged:

Many considered him (whom) the world’s most eligible bachelor.

3. Tip: Omit words to help you decide. Yes, vacuuming works.

Pedicycle drivers, who I think can drive up to four people at once, are friendly, but not speedy.

Delete “I think” to clear the picture. “Who” is the subject of the clause “who can drive up to four people at once.”

Cool mnemonic (memory aid):

The pronouns him, them, and whom all end in m, and are all objective.

If a who/whom dilemma still trips you up, do what we do: recast the sentence. Write it a different way so your readers move smoothly to your next sentence, keeping their thinking processes intact.

Coming next month:

We’re always on the hunt for great bloopers. We’ll spotlight a Blooper Patrol column in November. Send your bloopers! Here’s an example, our newest find from the front page:

“We must reign in spending.”

Yikes. To reign means to rule. The headline writer meant “We must rein in spending.”

Please Comment

Still have who/whom questions? You know who to call (implied “who it is that you should call”). Post your question here.

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2 Responses to “Who or Whom? A Writer’s Dilemma”

  1. Manuscripter Says:

    Saved at last! Why couldn’t my elementary school teachers have made it so simple?

  2. Edith Says:

    Thanks, dear Manuscripter. Glad to clarify. It’s always possible that our teachers DID make who/whom that simple, but the information has leaked from our busy brains and/or we often hear or read “whom” used incorrectly.
    Wait’ll next month’s column on common bloopers! We’ll highlight some of the slipperiest grammar boo-boos. (Slipperiest!? Have I coined a new word?) Here’s to great grammar, Edith

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