Ruminations on Writing: who vs whom

One of my major pet peeves when reading something is encountering words used incorrectly. Of late, a word I have been seeing more and more in incorrect contexts is “whom”.

Before I get started, I should note that in many areas or dialects, “whom” is falling out of use in favour of “who”. As a result of this trend, it is less annoying to use “who” in place of “whom” than the reverse. In fact, given how confusing the distinction between when to use which word actually is, this trend is hardly surprising.

First of all, to understand the whole issue with “whom”, you have to understand the difference between an objective pronoun and a subjective pronoun. A subjective pronoun can be used only as the subject of a verb. An objective pronoun appears as the object of a verb. Exactly what qualifies as a subject or object can be a bit murky, but there are very definite rules.

Now on to “whom”. The word “whom” means exactly the same thing as “who”. “Whom” is mearly the objective form of “who”, or, looked at another way, “who” is the subjective form of “whom”.

The major problem when determining whether to use “who” or “whom”, when not due to sheer ignorance or simple overcompensation, is determining whether the phrase introduced by “whom” or “who” is serving as an object or a subject. The obvious case is a simple question such as “Who is going?” This can never be written as “Whom is going?” That is unequivocably always wrong yet I have seen this with distressing frequency among amateur writers. The analogous objective case is something like “You went with whom?” (Often that will appear as “You went with who?” which, while technically incorrect, is more common colloquially. See the note at the beginning.)

It gets more complex when the pronoun introduces a phrase or when the word order is juggled up. So, for instance, “Whom are you going with?” would be correct. (We are not discussion the notion that prepositions cannot end sentences which is absolutely ludicrous with no basis in the actual history of English usage.) To show how difficult it can be with inverted word order, consider the common question, “Who are you?” This should, technically, be “Whom are you?” because when you undo the inversion, the question is actually “You are whom?” which clearly shows “whom” as the direct object. No doubt there is a case to be made for “who” in this case, but it seems to me that that only creates confusing exceptions.

Now let’s consider a complete clause. For instance, “who died yesterday”. This complete clause can stand perfectly as a sentence and, thus, “whom” cannot be used. That is because “who” in this case is the subject of “died” and the clause itself is independent. Even when we put it into a sentence, such as “I recevied a letter from Fred, who died yesterday.” In this case, the clause itself is not the object of the “received”. “Fred” is. The clause is merely providng information about “Fred”. In fact, there is no correct construction which places the “who died yesterday” clause as the object of “received”. You cannot write “I recieved a letter from whom died yesterday.” It’s no more correct written with “who”.

There are murkier cases, of course, especially as the complexity of the sentence structure increases. Unless the sentence structure truly gets ridiculous, in those cases I am much less bothered by incorrect usage. However, when the usage is clearly a clause like in the previous paragraph, I will always be annoyed by the presence of “whom”. Say it with me: it is never correct to write “whom” followed by a verb unless the structure is an inversion, which almost never occurs except in questions. No matter how much you think it is correct, do not write “I gave it to Frank, whom seemed thrilled to receive it.” That is not correct.

In my not so humble opinion, it is far better to err on the side of “who” than to use “whom” where it does not belong. “Whom” has the disadvantage of sounding pretentious, even when used correctly. When used incorrectly and that usage is recognized by the reader, you come across as a pretentious idiot. Using “who” instead of “whom” merely makes you look like an idiot. For better or worse, there is far more stigma attached to pretension than idiocy. There is also some measure of the same effect as writin “it’s” instead of “its” – adding something extra makes the error more noticeable than leaving something out.

(By the way, I did not commit an error when I placed “Whom” at the start of sentences above. The reason for that is that the word itself is the subject of discussion. I placed quotation marks around the word as a clue that it was not serving its usual purpose. In fact, this particular usage is no different than using any other quotation as the subject of discussion.)

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