Sunday, June 25, 2006

Grammar tips 4: who, whose, whom and who's

The usual Sunday post on grammar and style...

Let's get the easy one out of the way first.
Whose
and who's.
Simple. Who's means who is. Always. Just like it's always means it is. No exceptions.
You can't say "Who is book is this?" can you? So here it must be whose. You can't get much easier than that.

Now the more difficult one: whom and who.
Well, in fact this one is also pretty easy, but there is one problem - whether we should use whom at all.

Now I'm from the olden times, back in the days when school wasn't expected to be fun and teachers happily taught forty minute classes of pure GRAMMAR. I actually say things like, "Whom did he give it to?" Yeah, I know. People like me are anachronistic leftovers from a bygone era. I admit it.

Anyway, let's look at the basis for the difference first.

Who is the subject of a verb, like he or she. Subjects do things.
Whom is the object, like him or her. Objects have things happen to them.

Who is that? [Who is the subject. ]
Whom did she see? She saw whom? [Here, "she" is the subject. Compare: Did she see him?].

"She likes him." should become in a question "She likes whom?" or "Whom does she like?".

The man, whom they all knew to be a doctor, came running into the room. [In this sentence, the subject of the main sentence {in red} is "the man". Ignore that part of the sentence and look at the other part. The subject of the blue bit is "they". They all knew him to be a doctor. - So you can't use "who" in this part of the sentence.

Compare that last sentence to this one:
The man, who was a doctor, came running into the room.
In this sentence, the man is still the subject of the main [red] part.
He's also the subject of the blue part. He's a doctor. This time, there's no other subject like we to worry about. He was a doctor. Which is why we use who and not whom.

We use whom after prepositions too: by whom, with whom, to whom etc. Always. At least always if you want to be grammatical...*grin*.
The people with whom I travelled were all from Nannup.

Another problem with the preposition + whom is that it so often ends up with a hanging preposition which is just plain ugly. Look at this: He didn't know whom to give it to. And yet He didn't know to whom to give it sounds stilted.

Ok so now you know: you can't say "Who did you give it to?" [in other words, "To who did you give it?"] Bad grammar. And hands up everyone who's going to obey that grammar rule...?

Which brings us to the real problem. Whom has gone out of fashion. Put it in your writing and you can sound really staid and out of date. On the other hand, if you use who when you should use whom, it is going to grate on old pedants [one of whom may be the editor you are trying to impress]
like me. So what's a poor writer to do?

Well, if you are writing a modern novel, I would not use whom in your dialogue [unless someone from a past age like me is speaking!]. If you are writing a period piece on the other hand, and your speaker is a well-bred lady/gentleman, then perhaps you should.

And in your text? Tough one. Theoretically you should be grammatically correct. But...you don't want your book to sound like a nineteenth century tome. So dodge whom
altogether whenever using it just doesn't ring true to your writer's ear. In cases like that, rewrite the sentence to avoid it. I know I do.

14 comments:

Kendall said...

You hit another weakness of mine -- who versus whom. Thanks for clarifying which to use when!

I cringe to see errors with whose and who's. The only good thing about that kind of mistake is that if it's spoken, you can't hear the mistake. ;-)

KarenEMiller said...

Shouldn't that be, To whom did she give it?

*g*

running away now, running away ....

NoraDevius said...

Another great lesson! Thank you!

Glenda Larke said...

Ah, Karen, just want to show that although I'm a pretentious old git, I'm not THAT pretentious?? Lol!

Bernita said...

Excellent, Glenda!

~ being one of those types who answers telephone inquiries from sales people who demand to speak to the "lady of the house" with a "This is she..." and those who do not identify themselves with a "To WHOM am I speaking?"~

Jewel Noxenet said...

I stumbled across your blog through mention of it in Trudi Canavans. I am loving the writing tips :)

This question has nothing to do with this post but I was wondering is it normal to have more than one project going at once? And is it ok?

Glenda Larke said...

Ah, Bernita, we are the last bastions of beautiful spoken English...!

Jewel, I AWLAYS have more than one project going! Although I concentrate on the one I have a deadline for...

There is one golden rule in this business: do what works best for you.

Lydia Teh said...

Hi Glenda, it's been quite a while since I last visited here. There's a whole bunch of very useful info here. Going to put a link on my blog.

Who/whom is one of my weaknesses and I'm so glad to hear it's out-dated.

Glenda Larke said...

Hi Lydia - nice to see you back. And one of these days I am going to put up a whole lot of links myself. I just hate messing around with stuff like that...but one day, I promise.

Anonymous said...

ur a saver thank you

Adhie said...

Thanx for sharing your grammar knowledge :)

Tiffany said...

Thanks you really helped me through this i hope i ace the test!!

Anonymous said...

What about the contraction of "who has?"
Should that be "whose" or "who's?"
It seems to me that it would be "who's," but you say that "who's" always means "who is."

Glenda Larke said...

Yes, you're right. Well spotted. "Who's" can be the contraction for "who has" in conversation, as in: "Who's got my hat?"

Of course, it isn't used in non-verbal text unless the writer is deliberately writing as one would speak.