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Who and Whom

Which of these sentences are correct?

1. We will give the money to the person who needs it most.
2. We filed a complaint against the contractor who we hired last month.
3. No one knows who you are.
4. Who are you calling?
5. Who is at the door?
6. We will be kind to whomever knocks on our door for help.
7. Whomever we elect for president will be in office for four years.

All the odd numbered sentences are correct.

Before we go over the four-step trick for getting "who" and "whom" right every time, let's look at the grammatical difference between these words, keeping in mind that "whoever" and "whomever" function just as "who" and "whom" do. (All grammarphobes please skip right on down to the trick!)

"Who" and "whoever" will always be either the subject or the predicate pronoun of their own clauses. (A subject and a verb comprise a clause.) Thus, in sentence 1, "who needs it most" is correct because "who" is the subject of the verb "needs." In sentence 3, "who" is the predicate pronoun of the clause "who you are." (Because of the linking verb "are," the clause says "you = who.") Sentence 5 is correct because "who" is the subject of the verb "is."

"Whom" and "whomever" will always serve as objects. Sentence 2 is incorrect because in the clause "who we hired last month," the subject is "we," the verb is "hired," and the object of that verb is "whom." Likewise, in sentence 4, the subject is "you" and the object of the verb "are calling" is "whom." In normal order, the clause reads "we are calling whom." Here are corrected versions of sentences 2 and 4:

2. We filed a complaint against the contractor whom we hired last month.
4. Whom are you calling?

Sentence 7 correctly employs "whomever" as the object of its own clause, "Whomever we elect for president." The subject is "we," the verb is "elect," and the direct object is "whomever." In normal order, the clause reads "we elect whom."

Here is the four-step trick for getting these words straight every time:

Step 1: Isolate the clause containing the "who(ever)" or "whom(ever)." (Sentences that ask questions, such ase 4 and 5 above, can have only one clause.)

Step 2: Ignore the part of the sentence that is NOT in the "who(ever)" or "whom(ever)" clause.

Step 3: In place of the word "who(ever)" or "whom(ever)," plug in the words "he" or "him" and see which one sounds better. (Sorry, ladies; we can't use "she" and "her" because "her" doesn't end with an "m," and the trick won't work!)

Step 4: If "he" sounds better, then choose "who(ever)." If "him" sounds better, then choose "whom(ever)." Remember that the "m" words ("him" and "whom") go together.

Let's try the trick on sentence 1:

(1) Isolate the "who/whom" clause: We will give the money to the person [who needs it most].

(2) Ignore the rest of the sentence outside the bracketed clause.

(3) Plug in "he" or "him" and see which sounds better: "he needs it most" or "him needs it most"?

(4) Obviously, "he" sounds better, so our choice will be "who."

Let's try it on sentence 7:

(1) Isolate the "whoever/whomever" clause: [Whomever we elect for president] will be in office for four years.

(2) Ignore the rest of the sentence outside the bracketed clause.

(3) Plug in "he" or "him" and see which sounds better: "we elect he for president" or "we elect him for president"?

(4) Obviously, "him" sounds better, so our choice will be "whom"--or, in this sentence, "whomever."

The trick works even when the "who" or "whom" refers to a group of people; simply use "they" and "them" instead of "he" and "him." The "m" words still go together: "them," "him," "whom," and "whomever."

We get in trouble when we forget step 2 of the trick and don't ignore the part of the sentence that is outside the "who/whom" clause. Notice what would have happened if we had made that mistake with sentence 6 and said "we will be kind to him" instead of "he knocks on our door for help." We would have incorrectly chosen "whomever" instead of "whoever."

TEST YOURSELF: Which word--"who," "whom," "whoever," or "whomever"--belongs in each blank?

1. She was asked to keep track of _______ came in late to work each day.
2. ________ should I say is calling? [With questions, it's a good idea to make statements out of them before trying to decide which word to use: I should say ____ is calling.]
3. _________ finishes the project first can leave work early.
4. _________ she selects as project manager will have to work many long nights.
5. We are pleased with the person _______ she has chosen to be the office manager.

Answers:

1. whoever [he came in late to work each day]
2. who [he is calling]
3. Whoever [he finishes the project first]
4. Whomever [she selects him as project manager]
5. whom [she has chosen him to be the office manager]

Copyright 2002 Get It Write

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