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Is It Who or Whom? The Key to Solving the Conundrum

When punctuation marks aren’t doing their utmost best to defeat marketers and copywriters, it’s words like “lay” and “lie” and “who” and “whom.” Just when is a marketer supposed to use one word or the other?

Key to Who and Whom

To answer the “who” versus “whom” debate, “who” is the subject of a sentence or clause.

Example: We don’t know who’s coming to the party.

“Whom” is the object of a verb or a preposition.

Example: We don’t know whom we invited.

The key to knowing which word to use in a particular sentence requires determining whether the needed pronoun is a subject or an object. It can be a difficult key; it sometimes gets stuck in the lock. Fortunately, some WD40 – a grammar exercise in this case – usually does the trick and unlocks the door.

Who versus Whom in Questions

To figure out which pronoun to use in questions, use the following exercise:

1. Pose the question.

[Who/Whom] makes the final decision?
[Who/Whom] should Margaret ask?

2. Answer the question, using a personal pronoun (he/she; her/him). Choose the correct pronoun and note its case. (Subjective or objective.)

[She/Her] makes the final decision.
She makes the final decision. (Subjective.)
Margaret should ask [she/her].
Margaret should ask her. (Objective.)

3. Use the same pronoun case in the question. 
Who makes the final decision? (Subjective.)
Whom should Margaret ask? (Objective.)

In speech, “who” is commonly used whenever it is the first word of a question, regardless of whether it is a subject or an object.

Formal writing, including news releases or other official communications, is different. It asks the marketer or PR person to distinguish between the two pronouns and to choose the correct one.

Who versus Whom in Subordinate Clauses

Who or WhomFirst, a definition of subordinate clauses: subordinate clauses are a single part of speech and cannot stand on their own as sentences. They may serve the function of adjective, adverb or noun.

Example: We will go to the store once it quits raining.

“We will go to the store” can stand as a sentence and is known as a “main clause.”

“Once it quits raining” cannot stand on its own and is therefore subordinate.

When it comes to “who” and “whom” and their derivatives “whoever” and “whomever,” the pronoun choice is dependent upon its function within the subordinate clause. The pronoun always plays the part of subject or object. The role the subordinate clause plays in its entirety has no bearing on the matter.

As with questions, subordinate clauses have their own exercise:

1. Locate the subordinate clause.

Few students know [who/whom] they should ask.
They are uncertain [who/whom] makes the decision.

2. Rewrite the subordinate clause as a complete sentence and substitute a personal pronoun (he/she; her/him) for “who” and “whom.” Choose the correct pronoun and note its case.

They should ask [she/her].
They should ask her. (Objective.)
[She/Her] makes the decision.
She makes the decision. (Subjective.)

3. Use the same case in the subordinate clause.

Few students know whom they should ask. (Objective.)
They are uncertain who makes the decision. (Subjective.)

If “who” and “whom” still cause angst when they occur in email copy or a news release, you’re not alone. Even the best writers and editors usually have to review the rules when they find themselves mystified by the “who” or “whom” lock. They return to the rules, then ease the who/whom key into the lock with a bit of grease and an exercise or two.

Erin Feldman is director of editorial services atTenacity5 and author of Write Right. Click here to get more of Erin’s grammar, marketing and PR tips.

Images: muufi (Creative Commons)

 

About Erin Feldman

Erin Feldman is the director of editorial services at Tenacity5 Media. When she isn’t researching, writing, and editing blog posts and white papers, she writes poetry and essays, draws her favorite Write Right character, and plans what art form to study next. She’s based in Austin, Texas and can be found on Twitter @erinmfeldman.

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