Thursday, April 15, 2010

Who Is Whom?

Which of these sentences using who and whom, both of which appeared recently in The New York Times, is incorrect?

1.    Mr. Bashi said he was charmed by Ms. Vicens, whom he said was at once “sophisticated and intellectual” and yet “didn’t take herself too seriously.”

2.    The admiral who Johnson was questioning assured him that the military does not anticipate any island-toppling.

Answer: both of them are wrong. It’s that who-whom thing again.  Simply put, who is always in the nominative case and functions as the subject of a verb, and whom is always in the objective case and must be the object of a verb or preposition.

The use of whom instead of who in a subordinate clause every time a verb follows is tempting—but it must be heroically resisted until you have determined if it is correct. The writers of both sentences above fell into traps—the first by carelessly thinking that whom is the object of he said, and the other by over-correcting such a potential mistake and assuming that who is the subject of assured.

I’m going to let Byron A. Garner, who I am willing to bet makes more money writing about words than I do, explain it.  In the Dictionary of American Usage, he writes:

“The correct uses of who are sometimes tricky.  But if the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause, it must be who, never whom—e.g.: ‘Alan Alda, who you quickly realize is sorely missed on TV, stars as Dan Cutler…’ (Who is the subject of is.)"

Thanks, Mr. Garner.  That explains No. 1 above, in which he said is a parenthetical expression inserted between the pronoun and the verb was, of which who should be the subject. But why is who in No. 2 wrong?  If you look closely, you will see that who is not the subject of assured, as it might first seem. The subject is admiral, and “who [read whom] Johnson was questioning” is an adjectival clause modifying admiral, in which whom should be in the objective case as the direct object of was questioning.  

All this palaver has hopelessly confused the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whom you all know and who you all know is easily addled.
      ‘Twixt her and she, or him and he,
      Or them and they, or us and we,
      I neither fret nor fume.
      But there’s one thing I cannot say:     
      If Doctor Who should come my way,
            Would I meet Doctor Whom? 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the clarification but I am sure I will continue to get it wrong at least 50% of the time.