It's Thursday again. . . already? How do the weeks go by so quickly?! The calendar doesn't lie, so it's time for our weekly visit with the English teacher.
Do y'all hate English teachers? When you think of your own English teachers, do you just cringe at the thought? My friend Bonita Lillie recently pointed out that many would-be writers become paralyzed when they hear "the voice of their inner English teachers." Ugh! She's right! That image is one of a teacher who is always prodding students to perfection, rapping their knuckles when they make mistakes.
Let's banish that image from our minds, shall we? I wish we could all replace that idea of an English teacher sergeant-major with the notion of an English teacher cookie-baker. Really. I used to bake cookies for my students so that they'd associate yummy treats with learning about grammar.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: good grammar is not the point. Communication is the point. My aim here is to help you master some rules of grammar so that you feel free NOT TO WORRY about them ever again.
Today I want to answer a question asked by several readers: What are the rules for using who and whom? I'd like for us to take a fresh approach to using these troublesome pronouns.
First of all, why are they troublesome? They ought to be pretty easy to understand. They're the very same as he and him or she and her, and we don't usually have any trouble with those pronouns. Who is subjective and should be used when you need the subject of a sentence or phrase and following a linking verb such as is, am, are, was, were, or be. Whom is objective and should be used when you need an object such as a direct object, an indirect object, or the object of a preposition.
Although those rules are pretty straightforward, we tend to have trouble with who and whom because they are pronouns usually used in forming questions. Questions, also called interrogative sentences, can be troublesome to us simply because the word order is reversed. If you're unsure whether you need who or whom, the best way to figure it out is to mentally change the order of the sentence and decide whether you need a subject or an object.
- (Who/whom) do you want to invite to the party?
- You do want to invite __________ to the party.
When you turn the sentence around, it's pretty clear that you need the objective form whom to fill in the blank. For instance, you'd use "her" in this spot, not "she."
- (Who/whom) was your choice in the election?
- Your choice in the election was __________.
In this sentence, you need the subjective form who to follow the linking verb was.
- (Who/whom) is going to clean up this mess?
This time, there's no way to reverse the word order of the sentence, because who or whom actually serves as the subject. So that's easy: you need the subjective form who to be the subject of the sentence.
So those are the rules for using who and whom. But I'd like to challenge you on this point of grammar. If you're the kind of person who delights in having everything just right, then go right ahead and use who and whom just as they're meant to be used. For most of us, though, this point doesn't matter too much in our communication. For instance, if I say "Who do you want to invite to the party?" I think you'll understand what I mean even though I've chosen the wrong form of the pronoun. So let's relax. I suggest that, unless we're in a situation that calls for very close attention to detail, let's not worry about this. Let's remember that who is subjective and whom is objective so that we CAN use them correctly when we need to. . . but let's also remember that casual conversation and writing don't often require this much precision.
Here's my mantra (I made my students memorize this!): Language is a gift from God, given only to humans, for the purpose of communication. Did you get that? The purpose is communication. And I think we can communicate clearly and effectively even if just use who instead of remembering to use whom sometimes.
So what do you think about this? I'd love to hear your thoughts!