A Word, Please: For whom the 'who' tolls

They say that “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. In other words, almost getting something right isn’t worth much unless you’re close enough to score points or leave a little shrapnel.

The word “whom” is no exception. Understanding how to use it in almost every situation isn’t worth much. In fact, understanding only the basics of how to use “whom” may be worse than knowing nothing about it at all, as a recent news headline demonstrates.

“Authorities have arrested a central Florida man whom they say zoomed by a trooper at a speed of 108 mph.”

George in Florida emailed me that headline because, as far as he could see, that “whom” should have been “who.”

I’ve seen this use of “whom” a lot, usually in small community newspapers — places where there are fewer editors and therefore fewer levels of editing. In an environment like that, a little hole in someone’s knowledge usually doesn’t get caught by someone else. The mistakes end up in print.

And let there be no confusion about it. That “whom” is a mistake.

The error in this headline occurred because someone with a basic knowledge of “whom” was thrust into a situation in which basic knowledge was not enough.

“Whom,” as the writer or editor knew, is an object pronoun. It functions as the object of a transitive verb: You hired whom? Or it functions as the object of a preposition. You’re going to the movies with whom?

Its counterpart, who, is a subject. It performs the “action” of a verb, as in “Who saves enough?” and “Who wants ice cream?” The headline writer noticed that “say” needed an object, and that all signs suggested it was “whom.” But it wasn’t.

In that headline, the real object was not a single pronoun but a whole clause.

Look at the sentence “I know Brian lied.” Here the object of the verb — the thing being known — is not Brian. It’s that Brian lied. The object of the verb is the whole clause. So if we were to swap out Brian for a pronoun, we’d get “I know who lied” and not “I know whom lied” because the verb “lied” needs a subject.

In more complex sentences this can be less clear. “I know who they say lied.” Here it’s harder to see that the “lied” needs a subject, and that subject can only be “who.”

Sentences that call for a “whoever” or “whomever” are even more prone to this error: “I’ll follow whomever I’m sure can lead.” That should be “whoever” because the object of “follow” is the whole clause “whoever can lead.”

Look again at our police headline. The word “say” clearly needs an object. But the thing being said is not “whom.” It’s “who zoomed by.” That zooming is an action. Whatever is doing the action is a subject, and so it must be in subject form.

Shorten the headline and this is clearer. “Authorities have arrested a central Florida man who zoomed by a trooper.”

Another way to see the situation more clearly: Plug in a different subject and object pronoun and compare. “They say he (subject pronoun) zoomed by a trooper” or “They say him (object pronoun) zoomed by a trooper”? The answer is clear.

Every clause needs a subject. When a pronoun appears to be in both an object and subject position at the same time, the real object of the clause is not who/whom but the whole clause.

And that’s all you need to know to go from almost understanding “whom” to understanding it completely.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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