To Whom ‘Whom’ May Concern*

It’s funny the things you think about at 4 in the morning.

Here’s an example: how do you work out whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’?

Not that you have to. In most contexts nowadays, ‘who’ is considered sufficient, so ‘whom’ is pretty much only a concern for stuffy old language sticklers like me. If in doubt, or a hurry, or both, just use ‘who’. But even as one of them stuffy sticklers (and I don’t want to think why I’m suddenly visualising the cheque-scam scene from ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’), I’ve no idea what the actual RULE is. I’m sure it involves all sorts of complicated words about tenses and cases and subject-object and all that baffling stuff that language experts know all about.

Language experts

Well, there were a lot of long words in there, Miss. We be naught but humble pirates. How does it actually WORK?

It’s actually dead easy; but you have to think ahead a little bit.

Any time the word ‘who’ is coming up in the sentence you’re writing, ask yourself the question it’s going to be part of, and then imagine yourself answering it with a point of the finger at a male/male-identifying personage (and the only reason I discriminate here is because one of the conventional male pronouns has an ‘m’ on the end and it makes it easier):

“Who stole the cake?” “He stole it!” (points)

“Who did you rather foolishly give the cake to?” “I gave it to him!” (points)

Now look at the pronoun you’ve used in your imagined answer. If it’s ‘he’. then the question should have used ‘who’. If it’s ‘him’ then it should have used ‘whom’.

“WHO stole the cake?” “HE stole it.”

“WHOM did you give the cake to?” “I gave it to HIM.”

But she didn’t, did she? She didn’t give it to anyone.

(By the way, on that last example, some people still insist it’s a rule that you can’t end a sentence, even a question, with a preposition – that is, in this instance, “to”. There’s actually no such rule. But you could ask either “Whom did you give it to” or “To whom did you give it”, and either would be accepted as correct.)

I’m not sure who this might help… Wait: “Who might this help? It might help HIM” (points). Hmm, then: I’m not sure WHOM this might help, but if it’s you I’m glad that it did; and if you’re a linguist or anything then I’m very sorry to have done this to you. There are doubtless much simpler ways of figuring this out but this is how I’ve always done it.

(* Again: Who might it be a concern to? It might be a concern to HIM. So, to WHOM might it be a concern?)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s