Grammar Usage

The “whom” front

Q: My daughter had to correct the following sentence on her seventh-grade pronoun test: “Whom does the manager think will be the most efficient employee, her or him?” She changed it to “Who does the manager think will be the most efficient employee, she or he?” The teacher marked this as incorrect, but I can’t figure out why. Please help!

A: We can’t figure out why, either. Your daughter was right, and her teacher ought to go stand in the corner with a grammar book. (No, we won’t insist on a dunce cap!)

Before examining that sentence, let’s get rid of some clutter.

The choice between “who” and “whom” becomes obvious when we strip down the first part of the sentence to its basic subject, verb, and object: “Who … will be the most efficient employee….”

Next, let’s move around a few words to make it easier to identify the subject and object in the second part of the sentence. Again, the choice (“she or he” vs. “her or him”) is obvious: “… she or he … will be the most efficient employee….”

We’ve discussed “who” and “whom” many times on the blog (you can search for the terms) and we have a section about them on the Grammar Myths page of our website.

The real question here is whether “whom” matters anymore. We’ll get to that later, but first let’s look at the traditional view about who-ing and whom-ing, with an excerpt from Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“If you want to be absolutely correct, the most important thing to know is that who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him). You might even try mentally substituting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel). “Who does something to (at, by, for, from, in, toward, upon, with, etc.) whom. The words in parentheses, by the way, are prepositions, words that ‘position’—that is, locate—other words. A preposition often comes just before whom, but not always. A better way to decide between who and whom is to ask yourself who is doing what to whom.

“This may take a little detective work. Miss Marple herself might have been stumped by the convolutions of some who or whom clauses (a clause, you’ll recall, is a group of words with its own subject and verb). For instance, other words may get in between the subject and the verb. Or the object may end up in front of both the subject and the verb. Here are two pointers to help clear up the mystery, and examples of how they’re used.

“• Simplify, simplify, simplify: strip the clause down to its basic subject, verb, and object.

“• Move the words around mentally to make it easier to identify the subject and the object.

Nathan invited only guys [who or whom] he thought played for high stakes. If you strip the clause of its false clues—the words separating the subject and verb—you end up with who . . . played for high stakes. Who did something (played for high stakes), so it’s the subject.

Nathan wouldn’t tell Miss Adelaide [who or whom] he invited to his crap game. First strip the sentence down to the basic clause, [who or whom] he invited. If it’s still unclear, rearrange the words in your mind: he invited whom. You can now see that whom is the object—he did something to (invited) whom—even though whom comes ahead of both the verb and the subject.”

Here’s the $64,000 question: Does this “who”/”whom” business really matter anymore? Our authoritative answer: yes and no. This is what Pat has to say about it in Woe Is I:

“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.”

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