Deadly Wordplay #4: Who Does Whom?

Deadly Wordplay #4: Who Does Whom?

In my first week at an old day job, I got my first All Employees e-mail while my creative director was setting up my computer. The e-mail was from an unhappy soul in sales, whose lunch was taken from the company fridge:

Whoever took my packed lunch, I hope you enjoyed it. I have to go hungry now. Thanks!

Aside from reminding myself to keep my lunchbox at my desk, I didn’t take much notice of the e-mail, until a Reply To All message from someone in administration popped up:

It’s not whoever, it’s WHOMever!

What?! I muttered at my creative director, “That’s SO wrong.”

He frowned at my computer screen. “What do you mean?”

I pointed at the e-mail. “‘Whoever’ was right, and whoever just tried to correct the first person with ‘whomever’ was wrong.”

“Uh … what?”

“‘Whomever took my packed lunch?’ That doesn’t even make sense! ‘Whoever took my packed lunch.’ was correct.”

My creative directer looked at me like I was crazy, but I couldn’t help it. The misuse of who and whom irritates me sometimes.

First thing’s first. However it is used, the word who replaces the subject of a sentence; if there’s a verb involved, the subject who acts out that verb. Whom, on the other hand … well, we use whom as a replacement for the object noun in a sentence, so things happen to whom. Who does the doing, and the doing gets done to whom.

If you see a whom acting out, slap it upside the head because it doesn’t belong there.

For instance, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for, say, John Donne. Is John doing the tolling? No. The bell does, and it tolls for John. Therefore, we say for whom the bell tolls. If John tolled, we’d say who tolled. It was John Donne who tolled, that tattletale!

How else can I explain this so that it’s even more confusing than it needs to be?

Someone took a packed lunch from the fridge, and that packed lunch belonged to someone else. That first someone? He or she stole from him, the second someone. The subject noun ripped off the object noun. In other words, who gypped whom.

Simple enough concept, isn’t it? I think so, but then complicate a sentence a little bit, and people get it wrong all the time.

For instance, there’s a commercial that uses a song with the lyrics, “Who do you love?” It’s a nice enough sounding song, but the lyrics are grammatically incorrect. You do the loving, so you’re the subject, and as the subject, you love the object, and the object is always whom. So actually, the lyric should be, “Whom do you love?”

Swear to God, songwriters are such idiots.

Or maybe people think who is always at the start of a sentence? Not true. It doesn’t matter if the subject comes later in the sentence or if the object is first. What matters is that the subject of a sentence is the one acting out the verb, usually on the object of the sentence. In the case of the song lyric, that means that you act out the verb, and the unknown who/whom in this case is acted upon, so that unknown becomes whom.

And if there are two or more verbs and two or more apparent subjects or objects in a sentence, meaning there are clauses involved? Oy. I like to think of clauses as mini-sentences, which I guess can be kind of maddening if you’re keeping track of who does what or who does whom. Yeah, it can get complicated. I can see people crying, “Oh, my God, please, no. Anything but that!” But clauses are exactly where people often confuse who and whom.

Take, for instance, the following line:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

That’s correct, by the way. Was is the first verb. The old woman was—that is, she existed—and the old woman lived in a shoe. Lived is the second verb.

The who in this sentence introduces a relative clause, referring to the old woman already mentioned, and attaches itself to the verb lived. Since the old woman acts out the verb to live, the word who is used, instead of whom.

On the other hand, we have:

There once was a man whom the gods didn’t love…

This, too, is correct. A man was, or he existed, and the gods didn’t love him. The man is the subject that goes with the verb was, but he is also the object that goes with the verb love. The gods do the loving, and it’s the man who isn’t loved. That’s why the word whom is used. It refers to the man as the object that the gods don’t love.

But notice I wrote:

The gods do the loving, and it’s the man who isn’t loved.

Why did I use the word who? Was I wrong? Was I right? Have I made it all completely confusing yet?

Mystère et boule de gum!

But I was right, and it’s only because the sentence in this case is very passive and wordy. The first verb is do, the second is is, and the third—yes, there’s a third verb!—is is. Not loved, but is, present tense of to be.

The gods do … the loving. It is … the man. The man is … not loved. It is the man who is not loved.

Therefore, I was right.

And I am right in saying this:

April, who likes to write, challenges those of you, who also like to write, to craft some sentences using who and whom correctly. People who use the words correctly, and whom April will therefore label as proper wordsmiths, will feel really smug good about themselves. And people who get it wrong? The bell tolls for you, baby.

Now, time for lunch!

Edited to add: This link explains it better. Thanks, Kat!

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5 thoughts on “Deadly Wordplay #4: Who Does Whom?

  1. Ooh, I hate hypercorrection.

    I go by the “she/her” test. If the pronoun can be replaced by “she”, then it’s “who”, and if it can be replaced by “her”, then it’s “whom”. This doesn’t always make it clear (depending on the sentence), but it should catch most of the common ways to get it wrong. Having said this, I sometimes overlook misuse if I think it’s common enough in everyday speech. This probably makes me a slack editor, but I point it out and leave it to the author to decide.

    The best who/whom explanation I’ve found is over at Language Log, but it’s nowhere near as reader-friendly as your wordply … or should it be play? (Though I have to say, you’re plying those words. admirably.) *g*

  2. That should’ve been Language Log. %)

    Also … how tempted were you to reply and correct the hypercorrecter? Did it bug you the entire day? Because it would’ve seriously bugged me.

  3. 🙂 What should have been Language Log?

    And yes, omg, I was soooo tempted to Reply To All and correct the hypercorrecter, but I was new to the company and didn’t want to make any waves my first week there. And it seriously did bug me all day — she was perpetuating incorrect usage!

  4. I think my first comment is still in moderation. It had a typo.

    Haha, it would drive me nuts, too, and I’d be mentioning it to everyone around me. I harass my hubby about this all the time.

  5. Ack! You were right. Your comment was still in moderation mode because of the link.

    And I love the link! It explains the use better and more comprehensively than I just did. I’m adding the main site to my bookmarked feeds. 🙂

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