Posts Tagged ‘grammar talk

The word whom is rarely used in English anymore. There are the very grammatically correct, who use it in an appropriate, albeit old-fashioned way. And there are others, who insist on continuing to use an outdated word incorrectly.

To help prevent my poor ears from being offended by such things, I thought I’d explain the difference.

‘Who’ is a nominative relative pronoun, while ‘whom’ is an accusative relative pronoun.

For most people that sentence should make no sense whatsoever. The only reason I understand it myself is that I’ve spent the last three weeks intensively studying Ancient Greek. Surprisingly it’s taught me a lot about English grammar.

First off, a relative pronoun always takes the place of a noun (who, which, etc). The slight difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ is due to the purpose of the noun that is replaced.

The subject is effectively the noun that does the verb, and should be in the nominative case. The noun that the verb acts on is the direct object, and should be in the accusative (for the most part).

For example: ‘the man eats the cake’

Man is the subject, (doing the eating), and should be in the nominative case. The cake as the direct object (being eaten) should be in the accusative case. Now, unlike in Greek, or Latin, or even German, this doesn’t usually matter too much in English…

Until you try to use the word ‘who’. It is the man who eats the cake. And the cake (if you were to personify it) whom the man eats.

If I were to turn the sentence around, and have a suddenly carnivorous (and grammatically correct) cake: ‘The cake eats the man’, then the man would become a ‘whom’. The man ‘whom’ the cake ate…

The cake is now the one doing the action, and so it is ‘the cake who eats’.

If all the grammar talk is going to in one ear and out the other (as it should!) let’s use another method. When in doubt, try the replacement trick!

The difference between who and whom is the same as the difference between he and him: a swap that we make automatically.

He is the equivalent of who, while him is the equivalent of whom.

So, if he ate the cake, you would say “who ate the cake?”

Since the cake ate him, you would say “whom did the cake eat?”

To make life even more confusing, if you’re using a copula verb  in your sentence, then both the subject and the direct object (man and cake) should be in the same case (nominative), and thus ‘who’. Unfortunately, copulaverb include ‘to be’. So every time you say ‘I am’, ‘you are’, ‘he is’, etc, you’re using a copula verb.

Personally, I think we should simplify things and take the word whom out of the Oxford Dictionary. English is a living language, meaning that it continually evolves. If they can acknowledge the extent of its evolution by adding the verb ‘to google’, surely they can acknowledge that no one cares about the word whom anymore, and remove it from the dictionary.

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August 2017
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