Who or Whom? Which one is right? Do we care? #WriterWednesday

who-or-whomAll of a sudden, the word ‘whom’ is popping up everywhere. I didn’t even know a word could be popular! Obviously, I was wrong. Unfortunately, the word ‘whom’ is not always popping up where it should be. It is, in fact, a little too popular. A bunch of writers appear to have taken their 10th grade English class lessons (Hi, Mrs. Southworth!) and went a bit whom-crazy. I don’t need to tell anyone that there’s a big difference between the grammar of a book report and the grammar of an actual book. Let’s have a looksie at the rules:

The simple rule is this:

Use who in the subject position in a sentence.

Use whom in the object position and after a preposition.

That sounds painless, but what the heck is the object position and what does ‘after a preposition’ mean? The easiest way to figure out when a pronoun is the object of a verb or a preposition (and thus use of whom is correct) is to substitute who with she or her. If she fits, use who. If her works, use whom. You’ll have to rearrange the sentence a bit to use this substitution test.

For example:

Who/whom should I talk to about proper grammar?

Substituting she or her looks like this:

I should talk to she. I should talk to her.

Obviously, her fits meaning that whom should be used in this question.

Whom should I talk to about proper grammar?

That’s the simple answer. I could go on and on with examples and prepositions. Then, there’s the whole discussion of whether a preposition should be allowed to dangle or not. Sorry. I got a bit carried away there. The above is the nitty, gritty of what you need to know.

The above is pretty much all the standard stuff you’ve seen – and probably forgotten – before. How then does the use of whom differ in writing? The most obvious deviation from the usual grammar rules is dialect. Although I’ve met a fair number of people who use whom in conversation, the vast majority of native English speakers do not. It sounds way too formal for most of us. What about your character? Is (s)he a stickler for grammar? Would he use the world whom when talking about, for example, motorcycles? Think about your character before exhausting yourself trying to figure out if it’s who or whom that proper grammar dictates.

I often write in first person. It’s a struggle to decide when to use proper grammar with a person’s inner monologue. With some characters, it’s easy. Callie, the heroine in Never Trust a Skinny Cupcake Baker, was a total and complete nerd. Obviously, her character used proper grammar all the time. No dangling prepositions here – thank you very much!

stopWhat about other characters? If you are an English teacher or grammar Nazi, please read no further! For the rest of us, here’s my advice – when in doubt use who and not whom. Why? After explaining all the rules, why on earth am I basically telling you to ignore them? A couple of reasons. First of all, if an English teacher or grammar Nazi is reading your work and you get it wrong, they will not be impressed and will most definitely let you know – usually in a review that everyone can see. Also, most readers won’t know what the rules are, but they’ll often instinctively feel for when grammar is incorrect. This causes a stutter in their reading and the last thing we writers want is someone to stop reading because something feels wrong.



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