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

July 14, 2011|By June Casagrande

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.

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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.

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