Thursday, 5 May 2016

Who or Whom?

Does the thought of a misplaced whom make your hands sweat? Does your finger hover, trembling, over the M key as you wonder anxiously, Whoever or whomever?

The good news is that you can decide to sidestep the whole issue. Except in particularly formal writing, it’s safe to use who instead of whom, and The Chicago Manual of Style suggests those who wish to avoid the who(m)ever question use anyone instead.

But suppose you have a hankering for the old-world sophistication of a well-placed whom. Never fear: there is an easy shortcut to determine which case—nominative or objective—to choose, and you don’t need to understand those words in order to use it.

Ed bestows his gifts on whomever he likes best.

The Easy Trick to Decide Between Who and Whom (or Whoever and Whomever)


This invaluable method from The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage has three steps, which we’ll apply to the following example:

  • Ed bestows his gifts on who(m)ever he likes best.

First, separate the part of the sentence that follows who(m)ever.

  • 1. … he likes best.

Second, insert either they or them, whichever fits.

  • 2. He likes them best.

If they fits, the word you want is who. If them works better, go with whom; the matching m’s will help you remember. (Alternatively, you could use he and him.)

  • 3. Ed bestows his gifts on whomever he likes best.

This method is particularly useful for sentences with nested clauses, which can lead even the most experienced grammar nerds astray.

  • Ed bestows his gifts on who(m)ever he thinks is the most deserving.

At first glance, this sentence might seem to call for the same pronoun as the last one. Try the steps and see.

  • 1. … he thinks is the most deserving.
  • 2. He thinks they are the most deserving.
  • 3. Ed bestows his gifts on whoever he thinks is the most deserving.

Is your mind blown yet?

Often the dreaded who(m) looms at the beginning of a question, but don’t be thrown off. The three steps still work.

  • Who(m) did you ask to the herpetology convention?

  • 1. … did you ask to the herpetology convention?
  • 2. Did you ask them to the herpetology convention?
  • 3. Whom did you ask to the herpetology convention?

  • Who(m) may I say is calling?

  • 1. … may I say is calling?
  • 2. May I say they are calling?
  • 3. Who may I say is calling?

Whom did you ask to the herpetology convention?

Whether you decide to apply that extra m or to skip it altogether in favour of a more informal style, consistency is crucial. It’s like shaving your legs—do both or not at all. Sure, you could walk around with only one leg shaved, but let’s face it: people would judge you. And wouldn’t you rather be judged on the quality of your arguments than on your grammatical grooming?




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