Beware of “Whom”

By Maeve Maddox

I just read a mystery by Sue Grafton in which her character Kinsey Millhone mentally corrects a maid who responds to her phone call by asking “Who may I say is calling?”

The Millhone character thinks “Whom, sweetheart, Whom shall I say is calling…”

This passage illustrates the fact that even an excellent writer can have trouble with when to use who and when to use whom.

In this case, the maid was right and the detective was wrong. If you want to know why, read on.

Like most pronouns, who has two forms: a subject form, who, and an object form, whom.

To understand the use of pronoun pairs such as who/whom, he/him, she/her, I/me, they/them, and we/us when used with a verb, one must recognize whether the word is being used as the subject of the verb or as its object.

Every verb has a subject. The subject is the doer of an action:
I sing.
We shop in town.
Who knows the secret?

Some verbs have objects. The object receives the action:
The ball hit me.
Don’t forget us.
Whom do you like best?

Most of the time we have little trouble recognizing subject and verb because the subject usually comes before the verb and the object comes after it.

The difficulty with who/whom arises from the fact that in a question, word order is reversed. We say “Where are you going?” and not “You are going where?”, “Whom do you like best?” and not “You do like whom best?”

Things get really sticky when a sentence contains more than one clause (i.e., more than one set of subject and verb).

The maid’s response is made up of two clauses. That is, it has two verbs: shall say and is calling. The subject of shall say is I. The subject of is calling is who. The clauses can be constructed in various ways:

Who is calling, shall I say?
Shall I say who is calling?
Who shall I say is calling?

The irony of Grafton’s criticism of the maid’s use of who is that elsewhere in the novel, Millhone doesn’t always use whom when it would be appropriate.

Conclusion

The use of whom as the object form of who is on its way out of the language. More and more educated speakers and writers use who as both subject and object. There doesn’t seem to be any reason not to. “Who do you want?” has become acceptable. Indeed, to the American ear, “Whom do you want?” sounds excessively proper. Personally, I like to observe the difference between who and whom in my writing, but I rarely do in speaking.

Whatever you do, don’t use whom as a subject! I’ve seen it done, further proof that this particular point of grammar has lost its significance. If you aren’t sure whether to use who or whom, go with who.

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11 Responses to “Beware of “Whom””

  • Thorn

    Well, you taught me something else I didn’t (completely) know.

    I’m surprised Sue Grafton’s editors didn’t catch that. I haven’t read any of her books, but I think I’ve seen her on a couple bestseller lists so she must be popular.

    Unless she was intentionally making the detective look stupid, heh..

  • Daniel

    Thorn, I guess it could be an intentional mistake, after all it was even highlighted by the remark towards the maid!

  • Stephen Ward

    Here’s a famous line that I always keep in mind to remember that “whom” is always used as the object of a preposition:

    “For whom the bell tolls.”

  • Dana Mark

    The way I determine the proper use of “who” or “whom” is to insert “he” or “him.” In the above example, “Who shall I say is calling?” we would say, “He is calling,” not “Him is calling.” Therefore we use “who” and not “whom.” The “m” on “him” means put the “m” on “who” to make “whom.” This may seem like a lengthy procedure to figure it out, but it seems to work for me.

  • Ben

    I don’t know what I’m talking about, however, is it possible that whom is actually correct?

    Heres why:

    Who(m) in the sentance could be considered an object in that Who(m) has the action of *being said* done to it.

    Additionally, because of the nature of the question: “Whom shall I say is calling?”, the Who(m) being said, may not actually be the person who is calling.

    I feel like, “Should I say who is calling?” implies that the person who asks the question allready know who who is.

    I just think whom may actually be correct… especially in a mystery novel involving maids.

  • Maeve

    Ben,
    I just noticed your post. Don’t know how I happened to miss it in March.

    The maid is correct. By no kind of convoluted reasoning can you make “whom” correct in this context.

    Sorry.

  • DuongS

    Thank you so much for clarifying this. I’ve had a hard time deciding which to use as well, and would stick to “who” to be safe. These posts are so helpful and educational. Thank you for a great blog! Love it!

  • PreciseEdit

    I think of Johnnie Cochran in the OJ Simpson trial asking, “Who is kidding whom?”

  • Ken Jones

    Verbs don’t have subjects. Predicates have subjects. Verbs have nouns. Just sayin’

  • E.C.

    Which is correct – “Who am I kidding!” or “Whom am I kidding!”

  • Mike

    “Whom am I kidding” is the correct one, even though it sounds awful.

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