Last time, I gave you four whom examples from the sainted Georgette Heyer. I said the number of mistakes was somewhere between zero and four.
And the answer? ONE. But which one? And why? Read on to find out.
Do I have to use Whom in written English?
Written material can pose difficult questions. If you’re emailing your mates, no one will care. If you’re writing your thesis or a letter to the pedantic godmother who will (you hope) leave you money in her will, you probably don’t want to make mistakes. They could distract your reader from what really matters, like giving you the top marks you deserve. So follow my tips if you want to be sure you can get it right when it matters.
Who/whom Tip #1 — create a sentence to check
Take the section beginning with whom, and turn it into a free-standing sentence. It’s easier to do it than to describe how to do it, but here goes:
♦ If whom becomes her/him/them in your new sentence, then whom is correct.
♦ If whom becomes she/he/they, then whom is wrong.
A quick reminder of the 4 Heyer quotes from last time with the whom sections in bold green:
- “And liefer by far that we should tell no one at Oversett, except Mrs Underhill (whom I hope to heaven I can pledge to secrecy!), of our intentions…” (The Nonesuch, chap 20)
- “…Luckily, Sir Tristram had the presence of mind to tell him that the groom was – whom did you say he was, Sir Tristram?” (The Talisman Ring, chap 7)
- “…I have thought myself in love, but I never before met a woman whom I knew to be the one above all others I wanted to call my wife.” (The Toll-Gate, chap 9)
- Miss Challoner undoubtedly sniffed. Lord Vidal, whom feminine tears would have left unmoved, was touched. (Devil’s Cub, chap 7)
Our newly created sentences would be:
- I hope to heaven I can pledge her to secrecy
- [see next tip]
- I knew her to be the one above all others I wanted to call my wife
- Feminine tears would have left him unmoved
So quotes 1, 3 and 4 were correct even though, to modern ears, they may have sounded wrong. And the incorrect quote was 2. But why?
Who/whom Tip #2 — cut out the red-herring phrases
Before we can turn quote 2 into a new sentence, we have to deal with the red herring. The whom section — whom did you say he was, Sir Tristram? — is complicated by the words “did you say”. If you remove them, you can create a free-standing sentence:
♦ Who was he, Sir Tristram? OR He was who, Sir Tristram?
and even if you rework the sentence and keep a similar phrase, it’s still who:
♦ You said he was who, Sir Tristram?
Heyer wasn’t the only one to make mistakes like this. What about these august organs?
Although married with three children, he is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom he says has ruined his life (Sunday Times, 1990)
In late 1982, officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary shot dead six people whom they said were armed members of the Irish Republican Army. (Economist, 1988)
Both wrong! Cut out the red herrings (he says & they said) and the answers are obvious, even without applying Tip #1. Whom should be who in both cases.
Phew! Time for a breather? Let’s imagine a relaxing scene . . .
No, not THAT relaxing!
Relax as Pompous Inquisitor inquisits the Dame
“You present yourself as a guru, but what do you really know, Dame Isadora?” The radio inquisitor has an audible sneer in his voice.
“Well…” [thinks: charm offensive here — there are potential clients listening!] “…it depends on the subject.”
“But, then again, what really matters in your business is something else. Contacts. Surely the real question is: who do you know?”
“Is it? Is it really?” [Pause for rapid review of Pedantique-Ryter who/whom rules.] Then, with sweet but superior smile,
“Perhaps, on reflection, dear boy — if you ever do reflect before you speak — your question should really be: whom do you know?”
Collapse of pompous inquisitor in red-faced confusion, followed by properly deferential attitude for rest of interview.
[Thinks: Let’s hear it for grammar!]
And yes, I do know that the word “inquisits” doesn’t exist. Call it another Pedantique-Ryterism. Lyndsey Davis creates her own new words — Lindseyisms. So did Shakespeare. And so do I!
You corrected his spoken English? Does it matter?
Not a lot, actually.
Heyer’s characters actually spoke those convoluted sentences — can you imagine a lover declaring his love nowadays with that Toll-Gate sentence? — but not even a bishop’s sermon would go to such lengths in this century. (Bishops who disagree should sign up for my private course on how to improve their spoken communication. Prices on request.)
For most people — and if my Inquisitor hadn’t been quite so aggressive I’d have been one of them — a question like “Who do you know?” is perfectly acceptable spoken English. Using whom wrongly in speech, however, can mark you out as trying to be superior or overly formal, and then making a fool of yourself by getting your grammar wrong. So my first speech tip, though not strictly pro-grammar, is…
Who/whom Tip #3 — in speech, when in doubt, use who
Most people won’t notice. Most people use who all the time themselves. And very few would dream of correcting you. (Exceptions for correcting rude inquisitors, of course.)
Who/whom Tip #4 — use that instead, or just leave it out!
Often, you can just omit who/whom altogether, even in written material. The man whom I love. Do you say that? Of course not. You wouldn’t even write that. Where the sense is clear, it’s fine just to leave it out.
Or — as our American cousins do — try using that instead. It won’t always work. But the Economist and Sunday Times quotes above would have been fine with that instead of whom. And they probably wouldn’t have provoked irate letters to the editor from grammar pedants.
You now know how to be a grammar pedant, if you fancy it! Best to avoid the green ink, though.
Pedantique-Ryter’s Don’t-Need-To-Read Geeknotes #3
The verb to be takes a subject form — I, she, we, they, who and so on — both before and after it. Heyer’s quote 2 — the one she got wrong — was even more difficult to get right because of the verb was. It is always grammatically wrong to write whom after the verb to be. You would write “Who was she?” and so you must also write “She was who?”
There are common-sense exceptions. It’s actually grammatically correct to write “It is I.” Heyer often has her historical characters saying just that. It’s probably what people did say in those days, but no one does so now.
WARNING: If a modern character in your book answers the phone saying “It is I”, the reader is likely to hurl the book at the wall. Sometimes, rules have to be broken, especially in the spoken word.
Oh my gosh! I’m sure I have been guilty of messing up this one, Dame P-R. Thank you for clearing it up and giving such a simple rule to sort it out.
Think nothing of it, m’dear. My pleasure to help.