"Who Cyril Ramaphosa should fire."
That was a recent headline for an Economist magazine article about the new South African president. But one of the biggest questions it raised had nothing to do with global politics. Why not "whom"?
The magazine's editors didn't wait for others to ask it.
"Some readers might have wondered whether someone should fire our proofreaders," they wrote in a follow-up. "Shouldn't that be 'Whom Cyril Ramaphosa should fire'?"
"Whom" makes editors nervous. It poses a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't danger. Use "whom" and you sound like an out-of-touch snob. Replace it with "who" and some people will think you're not qualified to edit or write professionally.
You have to pick your poison. But once you do, more pitfalls await. If you opt to use "whom," you can realize too late you're in over your head. If you opt not to use it, you could find yourself in a situation where "who" just doesn't cut it.
Here's what I mean.
People who know how to use "whom" know it's an object pronoun, which means it serves as the object of a verb or a preposition: The man whom you hired. The woman with whom you discussed contracts.
It all goes swimmingly until, out of the blue, you have to write a sentence like this one: The managers decided to hire Bill, who/m they believed would be best suited to improve the company's profits.
Chances are you'd look at that sentence, realize that the verb "believed" needed an object, and, applying the principle that "whom" is an object and "who" is a subject, you'd pick "whom."
You would be wrong. The correct pronoun in this sentence is "who." The object of "believed" is not a single pronoun. It's a whole clause with "who" as its subject.
Playing around with "he" and "him" can illustrate the point: "The managers believed he would be best suited," not "The managers believed him would be best suited." See how the object of "believed" is a whole clause and how that clause needs a subject: he? That's why "who" is needed in our first example.
Another problem you might encounter if you decide to use "whom": Whom are you talking to? Whom do you like? Whom else can we interview?
Awful, awful and awful, right?
Well, here's some good news. Just like the editors at the Economist, you don't have to use "whom" at the start of a sentence if you don't want to.
"In practice, 'who' is commonly used for object functions," reports the Oxford English Grammar. "Who didn't you like?" and "Who else can we nominate?" are two Oxford examples of perfectly acceptable English.
So even if you've opted to use "whom" in a document, you can replace it with "who" in these cases.
But what if you have made a conscious decision to eschew "whom"? Well, that's usually easier. But in rare cases, "who" just sounds terrible. For example, would you ever in a million years address a letter to "To who it may concern"?
Sometimes, the longer the sentence, the harder it is to ditch "whom." For example, you could opt for "who" in "Who are you sending those documents to?" But a more complex version would make that unwise: "Who are you sending that packet of documents that need to be signed immediately and forwarded to Bob to?"
In these cases, most people just put the preposition "to" up front: "To whom are you sending that packet of documents that need to be signed immediately and forwarded to Bob?" But try using "who" in that sentence and you'll see that sometimes "whom" is both more natural and more practical.
As the Economist editors know, sometimes good judgment is more important than rules.