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Who? Whom?

Today I want to talk about who/whom and how they’re used.

Two of the most frequently misused words are who and whom. I keep reading that whom is going the way of top hats and button-up shoes.  Maybe so, but for me it’s still a useful word, as long as it’s used correctly.

The easiest way to  know which one to use is to look at the sentence, keeping in mind that who = he/she/they and whom = him/her/them.

“Who is going to the dance tonight?” This can be reworded as “He is going to the dance tonight.” Or “Is she going to the dance tonight?” “Are they going to the dance tonight?” So who is the right word. You wouldn’t write, “Him/her/them is going to the dance tonight.” Nor would you write, “Is him/her/them going to the dance tonight?”

“To whom am I speaking?” Reworded, this would be “Am I speaking to him/her/them?” Or as a statement, “I am speaking to him/her/them.” Granted, this sentence is both formal and pedantic.

And that brings me to one good reason writers might want to know how to use whom — or how to “correctly” misuse it. If you’re writing an overly-educated, pompous, snooty character, you can reveal a lot by writing dialogue like this. “Wallace, my dear, I have not an inkling as to the identity of the miscreant whom you accuse of such blatant thievery.”

On the other hand, if you’re writing a character who wants people to think he’s highly educated, you can indicate the truth by writing a bit of dialogue like this one. “The people whom went to the dance that night were all cretinous fools.” Do it once and it looks as if you don’t know what you’re doing. Do it a few times — and only with that one character’s dialogue –and his pretension becomes obvious.

Finally, I suspect the knowledge of the correct usage of whom will be more relevant to those of us who write non-fiction or literary fiction. Most of the rest of us will rework our sentences to avoid the use of whom at all.

Just remember that who = he/she/they in a sentence; whom = him/her/them. You won’t go wrong if you do.

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