Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), Miracle of the Concrete Jesus & Other Stories, and several Kindle ebooks.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Who? Whom?

Warning: educational content follows.

“Who? Who-Who-Who? Who?” I sometimes hear the owl say at dusk when I walk the bottomland at Polecat Creek.

The English teacher (OK, “retired” English teacher) in me wants to commend the owl for using the subjective (i.e., nominative) case of the interrogative pronoun who correctly. But the owl is limited in vocabulary. I’ve never heard an owl ask, “Whom?” He couldn’t use the objective case if he wanted to.

Who and whom are interrogative pronouns (used to ask questions) but they're also relative pronouns (they act as subjects or objects in their own clauses, and they change form when necessary). They have three cases:
  • Subjective case (used for subjects and subject complements: who
  • Objective case (used for any kind of object—direct object, object of proposition, indirect object): whom
  • Possessive case (shows ownership): whose (not who’s—that’s a contraction for who is)

When I taught English, I noticed one of the hardest things for students to learn was when to use who and when to use whom. Here are some correct uses:
  • Who is calling? (subject)
  • Who shall I say is calling? (the subordinate clause “shall I say” interrupts the main clause, “Who is calling?”)
  • To whom do you wish to speak. (object of preposition to)
  • You saw whom? (direct object)
  • I don’t know whom you called. (direct object of the subordinate clause: You called whom. The whole subordinate clause is a direct object of the verb know.)
  • I don’t know who called you. (subject of the subordinate clause used as a direct object: Who called you.)

If you’re confused about whether to use who or whom, you can usually substitute he for who and him for whom. An explanation is here and here. Next, take a quiz.

Once you’ve mastered the correct use of who/whom, you’re ready for the whomever/whoever choices? Those two words are tricky.

We know that whoever is the subjective case (or, back in the old days, nominative) and is used for a subject or a subject complement (back in the old days, predicate nominative).

Whomever is the objective case and is thus used for any kind of object: direct object, indirect, object, or object of a preposition.

So, how can this be correct? Give the prize to whoever deserves it.

To whoever? No, you think, the correct choice should be whomever! To whomever. Object of a preposition. Right?

Nope, the correct choice is whoever. How can that be?

The whole clause—not just the pronoun—is the object of the proposition to. The clause is “Whoever deserves it.Whoever=subject of clause, so it has to be in the subjective case. Deserves=verb. It=direct object.

How about this? Give the prize to whomever you choose.
Now, whomever is the direct object of choose: You choose whomever. The whole clause is the object of the preposition to.

Accept the prize from whoever chooses you.
The whole clause “Whoever chooses you” is the object of the preposition from. Whoever is the subject of the clause; you is the direct object.

Today’s grammar lesson—and life lesson—is don’t jump to conclusions based on what, at first glance, “looks” correct. Take time to consider the evidence. Look at the whole before you consider each part.



Blogger Amy Hanek said...

Thank you Mrs. Mushko! Isn't it time for recess yet?

3:10 PM  
Blogger Debi said...

Oh man, I'm going to have to read that about a dozen times Becky.

9:59 PM  

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