Grammar Usage

Whom page

Q: My friend Joan (a teacher) and I were playing tennis when I said, “Who do you want to serve?” She immediately “corrected” me: “Whom!” A couple of days later, an NPR newscaster said voters decide “who” they want to be governor. When I told Joan, she replied, “He’s wrong too. It has to be ‘whom.’ ” Whaddya think?

A: Technically, your friend is right. But sometimes common usage (not to mention common sense) trumps being technically right.

To be absolutely correct, you should have said, “Whom do you want to serve?”

In that sentence, “you” is the subject, “do want” is the verb, and “whom” is the indirect object. (In case you’re a true  grammar junkie, the infinitive phrase “to serve” is the direct object.)

To make this clearer, let’s substitute “he/him” for “who/whom,” and turn the sentence around a bit: “Do you want he/him to serve?” The correct choice is “him,” of course.

But the choice between “who” and “whom” can involve more than grammar when the pronoun comes at the beginning of a sentence or clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb).

Many people find it stuffy and unnatural to begin a sentence or clause with “whom” in speech or informal writing.­  And many usage guides agree with them.

In Woe Is I, Pat says common usage allows for “who” instead of “whom” here when you’re speaking or writing informally. For instance, when you’re on a tennis court and discussing who should serve next.

Here’s how Pat puts this in the book (page 9 in the 3rd edition paperback, following an explanation of “who” and “whom” in formal usage):

“Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing, like personal letters and casual memos.

“Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on the most formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

“A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, ‘Who with?’ he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.”

There’s more about this less formal usage on page 215 of Woe Is I. We’ve also discussed it on The Grammarphobia Blog as well as on the Grammar Myths page of our website.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the use of “whom” seems to be rare in ordinary speech. And the objective “who” (except when following a preposition) has been common and idiomatic since Shakespeare’s time.

Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), places “who as an object not following a preposition” at Stage 4 on his Language-Change Index. (Stage 5 represents “fully accepted.”)

Finally, if you’re stumped by the choice between “whoever” and “whomever,” check out our advice for the whom-sick.

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