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A Word, Please: Whom and whomever aren't suitable subjects

July 14, 2012|By June Casagrande

I don't usually read advice columns.

If I need to tell my great-grandmother to lay off the Cuervo or tell a co-worker I don't want to attend her nudist wedding, I can find the words without any help. Besides, as anyone with a computer keyboard knows, it's more fun to give advice than to listen to it.

But when I'm flipping through the newspaper on a lazy Sunday, anything can catch my eye, as did this sentence from a recent “Ask Amy” advice column: “Reach out to whomever is in charge of the arrangements.”

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It's ironic, because it illustrates one of my favorite pieces of advice: Don't bother with “whom.”

I know that's an odd thing for a grammar buff to say. “Whom” is, after all, the quintessential icon of grammatical propriety. The problem with “whom” isn't the word itself, but its cousin, “whomever.” They're a set. If you invite “whom” to the party, you're obligated to invite “whomever,” too. And “whomever” is more difficult to work with.

“Who” and “whom” are easy if you know the basics. “Whom” is an object pronoun, meaning it's either the object of a verb, “You invited whom?” or the object of a preposition, “To whom it may concern.”

“Who” is a subject pronoun. It functions as the subject of a clause — the doer of the action in the verb: “Who wants cake?

These are even easier to keep straight when you note that “who” is to “whom” as “I” is to “me,” “he” is to “him,” and “we” is to “us.” You never slip up and say, “Us went to the movies” because your understanding of subjects and objects is innate. When you understand that “who” and “whom” work the same way, they're simple.

That's why a lot of people don't shy away from using “whom,” thus setting a formal tone in their writing. It works fine until they need to write a sentence like “Reach out to whomever is in charge.” That, as our advice columnist's editor should have known, is an error.

It occurred because someone — either the writer or the editor — looked at the words “reach out to,” saw that an object was needed for the preposition “to” and figured the object pronoun “whomever” was on the job.

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