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Devon 12-03-2011 10:59 AM

Who and Whom
Orignally written by Karen Roy

"Whom" is one of those words which we hear so rarely, and so rarely right, that it's no wonder we find it difficult to use. This is how it happens:

First, you make an innocent remark like "Who were you talking to?" Foolishly, you think this is communicating. But your interlocutor looks at you as though they don't understand. "Whom," they say, this in a tone commonly used for those with no ears, or perhaps nothing between them. Embarrassed, you subside, saying "Oh, right," as if you knew that.

Step one repeats, usually when you really want to look educated, until you're sure that using "whom" is your only hope of picking up your dragging knuckles. You start using "whom" all the time and congratulate yourself on being sophisticated. "Whom is that?" you ask people, and linger on the "m." "Whom may I say is calling?" you purr over the phone. You preen over your pronouns! You brush up your breeding!

Alas, my friend, you have hyper-corrected. Sometimes you use "whom" right, but often you don't.

The history of the English language offers a simple explanation for "whom." In modern English, word order is very important. We have to go from Subject, to Verb, to Object; English is an SVO language. This means that "Humperdinck kissed Buttercup" and "Buttercup kissed Humperdinck" mean completely different things (and have completely different effects on Wesley). But this was not always so; English word order used to be looser, and nouns had special little endings that said whether they were subjects or objects. That's why we still have different words for subject and object pronouns:

I / me
he / him
she / her
they / them
who / whom

So why are "who" and "whom" so difficult when we have no trouble with the others? Frequency is the best explanation; we don't use them as much.

Here's the low-down: Only use "whom" when it's taking the place of an object. In other words, if it stands for "he," use "who." If it stands for "him," use "whom."

"Who loves you?" "He loves me."
"Whom do you love?" "Him."
"She is the one who went crazy."
"She is the one whom I told you about." ("I told you about her.")

Now that you know how to use "whom"... let's be real about when to break the rules.

In casual speech, you don't need "whom." Just speak naturally with friends and family! If they correct you, say "Right! I always forget." After all, it doesn't hurt you any if they feel like they have better grammar. In formal situations, use "whom" correctly, but don't make a fuss about it. You want to look like you were born knowing subjective from objective pronouns. The same considerations apply in writing. Some writing is formal; other writing, especially dialogue, is casual. A good rule of thumb: You don't have to use "whom," but when you do, use it right!

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