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Public Editor: When who/whom trips us up, it also trips up our readers

A few readers have noted mistakes on the use of who and whom in our stories lately. Our night production editor and professed style geek, Martina Blaskovic, sent the following reminder note to staff:

"We make quite a few mistakes in the use of "who" and "whom" and our readers have noticed and get angry enough to take us to task on it. Of course we all know how to use them correctly – right? – but, in the rush to deadline, such grammatical details can sometimes get overlooked. So, this is a plea to give these little words a little extra love and use them correctly – "who" for subjects of sentences and phrases, "whom" for objects of sentences and phrases. Our readers will thank us.

And if such grammatical concepts as subjective (nominative) case and objective (accusative) case do trip you up, here is a hot tip to make it easy to remember:

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Substitute the pronoun "him" or "them" when you're in a who/whom quandary. If it sounds right, "whom" is correct (and that's easy to remember because all those pronouns end with an "m"). If "he" or "they" sounds correct, the pronoun you want is "who".

Examples:

1. I liked the people who were in the news meeting. (This is correct because they were in the meeting.)

2. She noticed many people waiting for the bus, most of whom were impatient. (This is correct because most of them were impatient.)

Hot tip #2: If a preposition precedes the "who" or "whom" in question, you can pretty much guarantee the correct pronoun is "whom". Example: Martina sent the style note to whom?

And, finally, hot tip #3: We confuse "who" and "whom" the most in long, convoluted sentences with multiple subordinate clauses. If you start getting really stuck identifying the subjects and objects of multiple verbs, chances are your sentence is a run-on mess and the remedy is to break it up and restructure it. Readers will thank you for that, too.

And, lastly, since I know some of you will ask: So what about the style book rule that says break the rules to avoid sounding fussy? Personally, I think our readers prefer fussy over incorrect, even if it is idiomatic and even preferred now by most grammarians. But I would suggest there is a solution: Our style book says to say "Who is she talking to?" rather than the correct "Whom is she talking to?" Why not say "To whom is she talking?" – and that way we can be at least slightly less "fussy" and even avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.

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If you want to comment on this or any other issue, email me atPublicEditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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