Who, Whom, Whomever, Whoever: Who’s to Say?
by Trista Cornelius
Dear readers of this column,
The topic of who and whom almost flattened my brain into the thinnest of pancakes. It was far more complicated than it seemed at first, and it did not help that even the most stringent grammarians concede that the rules are so little-known they hardly matter today. In his book Common Errors in English Usage, Paul Brians admits that “whom” has been “dying an agonizing death for decades.”
So, who cares, right? Or, is it whom cares?
Well, in spite of my lazier instincts to leave it alone, I must admit: I care. The rules about who and whom turn out to be quite fascinating.
If you’ve chosen to read this far, congratulations! We are now together in a teeny, tiny club for whom language rules intrigue.
Let’s start with who.
Who is a pronoun, specifically the subject pronoun, the one doing the action. For example:
Cecelia asked severely, “Who chewed up my favorite wool socks?”
To answer the question, you would write, “She chewed up your favorite wool socks” – and then point to Cecelia’s dog, Rose.
So, who = she/he.
Whom, on the other hand, is an object pronoun, the one receiving (not doing) the action. You would use whom where you’d use her or him. For example:
“To whom do these wool socks belong?” Rose had barked earlier.
To answer this question, you would write, “The socks belong to her” – and then point to Cecelia.
So, whom = her/him.
So far so good, right? Well, now prepositions come along and muck the rules up a bit.
“Whom are you barking at?” Cecelia asked Rose.
This example most likely sounds odd to your writing ear. However, it’s correct because “whom” is an object here, not a subject. It’s the object of the preposition “at” as in, “I am barking at her.”
My research confirms that “Who are you barking at?” is incorrect but, in modern-day usage, it has become preferable to the correct form.
Try this one:
“I don’t know whom she told not to eat these socks,” thought Rose. “They were left on the floor for the tasting.”
Here, “whom” is correct because it’s not the subject of the sentence but the object of the verb “know.”
You wouldn’t write, “… she told she not to eat these socks.” You would write,
“… she told her not to eat the socks.”
Now, on to more complications: whomever and whoever
“Whomever Cecelia talked to did not deliver the message to me,” snuffed Rose.
Again, “Cecelia talked to her,” not to she; therefore, whomever is correct.
If you’re with me so far, here is a triple threat adapted from Paul Brians:
“Cecelia gave kennel time to whoever had chewed her socks.”
I’d be tempted to write whomever here, but I’d be wrong. Whoever is correct because even though it is the object of the preposition “to” (where you’d normally use whomever), whoever is the subject of the entire clause: Whoever had chewed her socks = She chewed her socks.
Remember the she/he versus her/him test: If you can substitute the subject pronouns she/he, the correct choice is who. If you can substitute the object pronouns him/her, the choice is whom.
Okay, I’ll conclude with something easier: the difference between who’s and whose.
If you see the apostrophe, you know who’s means who is, who was, or who has. For example:
“Who’s been eating my favorite socks?” asked Cecelia.
You’d point to Rose and say: “She has been eating your socks” or “She’s been eating your socks.”
Whose is possessive, just like hers or his.
“Whose socks are on the floor? They look delicious,” woofed Rose.
You’d point to Celia and say, “Those socks on the floor are hers.”
Now, then, who made it to the end of this article? You did? Yes, you did. Whom can you blame for your brain being flattened like a pancake? You can blame her, the author of this column whose bio is below.
PS: Who’s hungry for pancakes? I’d be happy to share them with whoever masters these rules!
Trista Cornelius writes Voice Catcher’s monthly column “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.