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.

The passive voice: Is it always an error?

Today I was browsing books on Amazon, and I came across a likely-looking mystery. I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries lately, for reasons known only to my subconscious, I suppose. Anyway, I had never read anything by this particular author, so I clicked “Look Inside,” as I often do for books written by authors I know and always do for those written by authors I don’t.

The first sentence was a tortured attempt to avoid the use of the passive voice, in my opinion. I’ve changed the specifics, but the gist is as follows: Jack Smith had two forces in his life that drove him to excel.

Okay. I know, I know. Writing craft books, articles, and teachers have drummed into our head that we shouldn’t use the passive voice.  “Write active sentences!” Great. Sometimes, however, you might want a passive sentence. (The most important word in the preceding sentence is “Sometimes.”) Passive construction puts the emphasis on the object of the sentence, not the subject. “The accused man was found not guilty by the jury.” That sentence is passive. The emphasis is on the object (the accused man). The subject is soft-pedaled (the jury). You could even delete “by the jury” and still leave the meaning intact: The accused man was found not guilty.  What’s important in the sentence is that the accused man was found not guilty. What’s not important is that the jury did the finding. See? When you want to put the focus on the one being acted upon rather than the action or the person/persons doing the acting, you can use the passive voice to accomplish that.

So if the writer of the mystery I looked at wanted to focus on Jack Smith, she could have written, “Jack Smith was driven to excel  by two forces in his life.” Or she could have written, “Two forces drove Jack Smith to excel.” Which one is better? Tossup, in my opinion. It depends on where the focus is supposed to be. On Jack Smith? Or on the forces?

Now, having said that, let me add that most of the time, you will want your writing to be active, not passive.

The little dog darted into the yard and caught the ball.

The ball was caught by a little dog who darted into the yard.

In this case, the first sentence — while no masterpiece — is certainly livelier and easier to read than the second.

Use the passive voice when you need to. Be sure you really need to. And use it sparingly. old typewriter by menken at

Look inside the book–and close the cover

The other day I was searching on Amazon for a good book to read. I like zombie fiction, and that’s the specific genre I zeroed in on on  this particular day. I found one that looked interesting. Nifty, though a bit crude, cover. Good reviews. An editor listed in the description.

Because I didn’t know the writer’s other work, I followed my usual procedure and clicked “look inside.” I was a bit annoyed by the way the e-book was laid out – reviews, copyright information, table of contents, and so on all at the front, thus cutting down on the amount of actual book text I’d be able to read in my “look inside.”

Then I got down to the text.

I found a grammatical error in the second sentence. I found weak writing (to put it kindly) in the second paragraph, followed by several more examples of poor grammar, bad punctuation, and weak writing in the two or three pages I slogged through.

Did I pick up this book? No. No, I didn’t. Not even at the low-low-low price of free was this book worth it. The story sounded interesting. The writing turned me right off.

Now I have to add that a perfectly grammatical story peopled with cardboard characters and weighted down with a blah or confusing plot will also turn me off. I just can’t detect those flaws in the first two or three pages of the book.

Do you need an editor? Yes. Do you need an editor who’s not afraid to tell you what’s wrong? Also yes. Do you need an editor who knows his/her stuff? So much yes.  Sometimes an editor has to be the Bad Guy and tell her client that a section isn’t working, that a word doesn’t mean what the client thinks it does, that the client is relying on the same word or phrase too much. When we do that, it’s not because enjoy crushing a client’s creativity or voice. It’s because that’s what the client is paying us for: finding those errors before they turn off the readers.

All that said, it’s also true that a lot of readers don’t know the nuances of grammar. That doesn’t mean they won’t know when the meaning of a sentence is unclear. They might not know why they’re uncomfortable, but they’ll know they are. After all, a person doesn’t have to understand music theory or be able to read music to know when someone’s singing off-key.

Indie writers have to be especially careful, I think. Readers are, unfortunately, a lot harder on indie writers than those published by Big New York Publishers. It’s like that old saying, “You have to be twice as good to get half the respect.” Is it fair? No. Will this perception change? Probably. Does that probable change matter now? Nope.


photo credit: gregparis at

Adverbs: Friend, Foe, Switzerland?




Photo credit: Richard Edwards at

Stephen King: The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Mark Twain: I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me.

Graham Greene: There is almost a complete absence of the beastly adverb–far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.
Theodore Roethke: In order to write good stuff you have to hate adverbs.
Wow. Why do some great writers get their knickers in such a twist over adverbs? Writing should involve the use of the strongest, most vivid verbs. Adverbs enable lazy writing. Instead of “He spoke loudly,” try “He bellowed,” “He yelled,” “He shouted,” “He blared.” Each one has a slightly different meaning, and each one is more specific than “He spoke loudly.”

Another place writers often misuse adverbs is in tags. “I am afraid,” she said, fearfully. Don’t tell us (with the adverb) what the dialogue has already shown us. She’s afraid. Don’t gild the lily.

I’m not opposed to the occasional adverb. I am opposed to lazy writing and telling. The overuse of adverbs enables both of those bad habits.


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The Cover is Only Cosmetic–Honest It Is

I was reading comments on a forum the other day. Someone asked about hiring an editor to edit his book and was that really necessary. And if it was necessary, where could he find a good, inexpensive editor? The comments rapidly shifted from making the contents of the book as highly polished and professional as possible to “hire a good cover artist,” “a great cover will sell your book,” and “you need an eye-popping cover!”

Okay, an excellent cover is a plus. A lousy cover will turn off most potential buyers. I know that. No argument.  But guess what will turn off all your buyers? Lousy content. Sloppy writing. Cardboard characters who don’t act like any human beings who ever lived. Stilted dialogue. Bad spelling. Typographical errors. Wack-a-doodle punctuation.

Go to Amazon. Read a few book reviews. Any reviews. Any genre. Any writer. How many will say, “This book was full of bad grammar and spelling mistakes. 1 star!” Short answer: Lots. How many will say, “What a great cover! I didn’t even mind that the writer couldn’t tell a semi-colon from a hole in the ground!” Go ahead. Find one.

It’s true that I’m a freelance copy-editor. I don’t make much money at it. I’m not looking to make much money at it. I’m more interested, honestly, in helping indie writers improve their writing than in being able to light fires with hundred dollar bills. Or even one dollar bills.

But, seriously, sometimes I wonder if some indies are ever going to “get” it. It’s not the flash. It’s not the paint job. It’s the content. It’s the actual work that matters. The words. The sentences.

You can paint up a jalopy. You can re-chrome everything. You can tart that sucker up till it shines like a second sun even on a cloudy day.  But if it doesn’t have an engine, it won’t run.

A book is exactly the same. You can slap a brilliant cover on sloppy work and it’s still sloppy work. And your readers will recognize that it’s sloppy work and will “reward” you accordingly.

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