A Word, Please: Advice for whoever needs it

I don't usually read advice columns.

If I need to tell my great-grandmother to lay off the Cuervo or tell a co-worker I don't want to attend her nudist wedding, I can find the words without any help. Besides, as anyone with a computer keyboard knows, it's more fun to give advice than to listen to it.

But when I'm flipping through the newspaper on a lazy Sunday, anything can catch my eye, as did this sentence from a recent "Ask Amy" advice column: "Reach out to whomever is in charge of the arrangements."

It's ironic, because it illustrates one of my favorite pieces of advice: Don't bother with "whom."

I know that's an odd thing for a grammar buff to say. "Whom" is, after all, the quintessential icon of grammatical propriety. The problem with "whom" isn't the word itself, but its cousin, "whomever." They're a set. If you invite "whom" to the party, you're obligated to invite "whomever" too. And "whomever" is more difficult to work with.

"Who" and "whom" are easy if you know the basics. "Whom" is an object pronoun, meaning it's either the object of a verb, "You invited whom?" or the object of a preposition, "To whom it may concern."

"Who" is a subject pronoun. It functions as the subject of a clause — the doer of the action in the verb: "Who wants cake?

These are even easier to keep straight when you note that "who" is to "whom" as "I" is to "me," "he" is to "him," and "we" is to "us."

You never slip up and say, "Us went to the movies" because your understanding of subjects and objects is innate. When you understand that "who" and "whom" work the same way, they're simple.

That's why a lot of people don't shy away from using "whom," thus setting a formal tone in their writing. It works fine until they need to write a sentence like "Reach out to whomever is in charge." That, as our advice columnist's editor should have known, is an error.

It occurred because someone — either the writer or the editor — looked at the words "reach out to," saw that an object was needed for the preposition "to" and figured the object pronoun "whomever" was on the job.

But in this case, the object of "reach out to" isn't the lone word that follows. It's a whole clause: "whoever is in charge."

Clauses, which are units made up of a subject and a verb, need their subjects. The fragment "is in charge" clearly needs someone in charge — a subject for the verb "is." "Whomever" can't do the job. It's an object pronoun. "Whoever" is the only grammatical choice.

Consider the sentence, "I know he will prevail." If the object of the verb "know" were just the one word that follows, you would use the object pronoun "him" instead of the subject "he," giving you "I know him will prevail." Instead, the object of the verb "know" is a whole clause, "he will prevail." That's why this sentence uses the subject form in "he."

Without "will prevail" it would be different. You'd say, "I know him." But add "will prevail" and you have a verb that needs a subject like "he." So the whole clause "he will prevail" is the object of "know."

An easy way to handle tough whoever/whomever situations is to remember that whenever a pronoun is positioned to be the object of one word and the subject of another, the subject form wins.

But that can be tough for some people to keep straight. That's why, if Amy asked, I'd advise her to avoid "whom" altogether.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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