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I Subject, Your Honor

Last month, in discussions of who-whom and whoever-whomever, we passed along a handy memory aid: who (and whoever) = he; whom (and whomever) = him.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere unless we can tell a subject (he) from an object (him).

One reason that distinguishing between subjects and objects is so difficult can be traced to what’s called the subject complement, a fancy term for the B in A = B. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a subject complement: it = you.

Math teaches us that if A = B, then B = A. If it = you, then you = it. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a kind of secondary subject.

However, you stays the same whether it’s a subject or an object. Things get trickier with the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they, who, and whoever, which all change forms when they function as objects (me, him, her, us, them, whom, and whomever).

A conversational sentence like It’s me is technically wrong, because me is the object form of I, when what we need is a subject complement. Therefore, It’s I would be proper English (it = I). Remember, if It is I, then I am it. Since no one says, “Me am it,” It’s me can’t be correct.

Look at these everyday sentences: It’s us. Wait, it was him. No, it has been them all along. But it could’ve been her. We hear these all the time—and every one of them is technically incorrect. In such sentences, informal speech tends to prefer object pronouns like me, her, and them over the formally correct I, she, and they. Who knows why? They just sound better, or something. For whatever reason, not many folks we meet on the street would say, “It’s we.” “It was he.” “It has been they.” “It could’ve been she.”

But no one can ever master whom and whomever without knowing when object pronouns in everyday speech should be changed to subject complements in formal English.

More next time…

Pop Quiz

Make the following colloquial sentences consistent with formal English.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be me.
2. The way I see it, it must have been them.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whomever else.
4. It ended up being her who the group could count on.
5. It seemed like them, but it was him.

Pop Quiz Answers

These answers are academically correct. But if you talk to your friends like this, you’re on your own.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be I.
2. The way I see it, it must have been they.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whoever else.
4. It ended up being she whom the group could count on. (whom is the object of the verb count on)
5. It seemed like them, but it was he. (them is the object of the preposition like)

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Monday, October 14, 2013, at 2:55 pm


Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm


Whoever Would Use Whomever: Read On

Last week we discussed Americans’ odd fondness for whom. It’s a word that few really understand, but it just sounds so darned cosmopolitan.

If we’re infatuated with whom, we’re over the moon about whomever. You hear it everywhere. People love saying it—right or wrong.

Just recently, a major American newspaper ran a headline that said “…whomever that may be.” When the story jumped to a second page, the headline changed to “…whomever it is.” Horrors! In both cases, this was first-degree whomever abuse.

Like that errant headline writer, too many of us think that whoever and whomever mean the same thing—and that whomever is the sexier choice.

To determine whether to use whoever or whomever, last week’s shorthand rule for who and whom applies: he = whoever and him = whomever. Whoever is always a subject; whomever is always an object. That’s why whomever it is and whomever that may be could never be correct. We say he is, not him is, so we must say whoever it is and whoever that may be.

The presence of whoever or whomever indicates a dependent clause, as in this sentence: Give it to whoever asks for it first. (The dependent clause is whoever asks for it first.) You might think the correct word should be whomever, an object pronoun, since you’d say Give it to her or Give it to them. But here is the rule: Always use whoever or whomever to agree with the verb (asks) in that dependent clause, regardless of the rest of the sentence.

I ask for it, he or she asks for it, we or they ask for it. I, he, she, we, and they are subject pronouns. Therefore, Give it to whoever asks for it first.

On the other hand: We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend. Since you recommend me (or him, her, us, them), the right answer is whomever, the object of recommend, the verb in the dependent clause.

So the key is the verb in that dependent clause. Remember that, and may all your whomevers be winners.

POP QUIZ

1. Choose whoever/whomever you prefer.

2. Choose whoever/whomever you think will win.

3. Whoever/whomever is chosen, we must pick wisely.

4. We discussed it with whoever/whomever we figured might be interested.

5. Make sure whoever/whomever you hire turns out to be qualified.

6. Make sure you hire whoever/whomever turns out to be qualified.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. Choose whomever you prefer. (you prefer him)

2. Choose whoever you think will win. (you think I will win)

3. Whoeveris chosen, we must pick wisely. (he is chosen)

4. We discussed it with whoeverwe figured might be interested. (we figured they might be interested)

5. Make sure whomever you hire turns out to be qualified. (you hire him)

6. Make sure you hire whoever turns out to be qualified. (she turns out to be qualified)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 17, 2013, at 12:39 pm


Whom Abuse Is Rampant

Consider the humble pronoun. It seems that fewer and fewer Americans know when to say “she” or “he” or “me” instead of “her,” “him,” or “I.”

It used to be that little Gloria would run home and tell her mother, “Me ’n’ Annie saw a walrus!” Whereupon her mom would say, “ ‘Annie and I,’ dear.” Now, alas, Gloria’s mother thinks “me ’n’ Annie” is just fine.

So why is it that so many pronoun-challenged Americans are infatuated with whom? It’s a word that’s become exotic and mysterious, and people say it when they want to sound authoritative, because even if they’re misusing it, chances are their listeners won’t know.

Let’s get technical. The pronoun who is always the subject. Use who wherever you would use the subjective pronouns I, he, she, we, or they. It is correct to say Who wants to go? because we would say She wants to go or We want to go.

The pronoun whom is always an object. Use whom wherever you would use the objective pronouns me, him, her, us, or them. It is not correct to say Who did you choose? We would say Whom because you choose me or him or them.

A handy memory aid: who = he, whom = him.

Here is an all-too-common misuse of whom: He is a man whom I believe can do the job. The writer chose whom, thinking it was the object of believe. But look what happens when we rearrange the sentence: He is a man whom can do the job, I believe. Obviously, the proper word is who.

Compare that with He is a man who I admire. Because we would say I admire him, the sentence should read He is a man whom I admire.

The key to mastering whom comes down to knowing the difference between a subject and an object.

POP QUIZ

1. Who/whom do you think will win the prize?

2. Who/whom do you think you’ll vote for?

3. She is someone who/whom I always counted on.

4. She is someone who/whom I always said could be counted on.

5. Who/whom are you going to believe?

QUIZ ANSWERS

1. Who do you think will win the prize? (they will)

2. Whom do you think you’ll vote for? (for him)

3. She is someone whom I always counted on. (I counted on her)

4. She is someone who I always said could be counted on. (she could be counted on)

5. Whom are you going to believe? (you’re going to believe me)

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Posted on Tuesday, September 10, 2013, at 12:32 pm


Reflexive Pronouns

Loyal reader Bill P. and others have written in commenting on what seems to be a growing misuse of words known as reflexive pronouns. Have you either heard or seen in writing a sentence like this, “Please give it to John or myself”? Is that right or wrong? Let’s have a look.

Rule: Reflexive pronouns—myself, himself, herself, itself, themselves, ourselves, yourself, yourselves—should be used only when they refer back to another word in the sentence. (A reflexive pronoun reflects the action described by the verb.)

Correct:
I worked myself to the bone.
(The word myself refers back to the word I.)

Incorrect:
Please give it to John or myself.
(The word myself does not refer back to another word.)

Correct:
Please give it to John or me.
(Why do some people use myself rather than me in the sentence above? Is it because it sounds more “upper class”? Possibly—however, it is incorrect grammar.)

Although the following example is not strictly an incorrect reflexive pronoun because it does not reflect the action described by the verb, the principle is the same.

Incorrect:
My brother and myself did it.

Correct:
My brother and I did it.

 

Pop Quiz

1A. Please call either Juanita or myself when you get this message.
1B. Please call either Juanita or me when you get this message.

2A. The chief of staff and myself want to thank you for your hard work.
2B. The chief of staff and I want to thank you for your hard work.

3A. Since we each have a job, we are able to support ourselves.
3B. Since we each have a job, we are able to support us.

 

Answers

1A. Please call either Juanita or myself when you get this message.
1B. Please call either Juanita or me when you get this message. (Correct)

2A. The chief of staff and myself want to thank you for your hard work.
2B. The chief of staff and I want to thank you for your hard work. (Correct)

3A. Since we each have a job, we are able to support ourselves. (Correct)
3B. Since we each have a job, we are able to support us.

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Posted on Wednesday, August 22, 2012, at 10:44 am