A Modern Take (Is Take a Noun?) on Parts of Speech

What is a part of speech? You might not believe how much disagreement and nuanced analysis surrounds that question.

This essay ventures into some philosophical questions—What does it mean to classify a word, and how and why have those classifications changed?—before emerging with a bit of writerly advice. I find this excursion invigorating, like a deep‑sea search for treasure. Come along, and we’ll share the spoils.

According to one modern school of linguistic thought, only four word types—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—now qualify as parts of speech. Four. The nerve! … Continue reading

Whom ya gonna call?

Whom. You can’t say the word without sounding snooty. As soon as your lips close on the uncool m, your nose tilts up.

Imagine a group of rockers walking out on stage, announcing themselves as (watch their noses) The Whom. Visualize Dr. Seuss sitting at his typewriter, writing about (again the nose) the Whoms in Whomville. Picture Abbott and Costello standing at their microphones, doing Whom’s on First.

Sure, these examples are grammatically ludicrous. The point is that whom, the word itself — regardless of correctness or incorrectness — offends some people’s sensibilities.

“Who’s she calling offended?” I can practically hear people whispering. It’s as if the word whom is somehow impolite. Presumptuous. Un-American. Dropping the m has become a form of cultural sensitivity, an expression of democratic values, a way of saying, “We’re in this together.” If you and I were created equal, common usage seems to say, why shouldn’t who and whom be equal too?

But who and whom are no more interchangeable than you and I. Ignoring this truth, which is apparently not self-evident, doesn’t make it less true.

How do you know which term is correct? More to the point for the whom-averse, when is it safe to use who?

Here’s a trick. In the split second before you say who, think he. If he works, who works. But if your he needs the m in him, then your who — there’s nothing for it — needs an m too.

Think of it this way:

who = he (Both pronouns are in the nominative case.)
whom = him (Both pronouns are in the objective case.)


1. You want to say this: Who did you walk with?
2. You do the he test: He did you walk with?
3. You flip the words around
into a more natural order:
Did you walk with he? (Ugh.)
4. You swap in him: Did you walk with him?
5. You realize you’re stuck with this: Whom did you walk with? (Nooooo.)
6. You say this instead: Who walked with you? (Yesssss.)

With practice, your brain flies through these steps. You simply know.

Who cares? Often no one. Take Twitter. How many tweeters do you suppose complain about the phrase “Who to Follow” in their menu bar? This gaffe probably bothers only a teeny fraction of… the millions of people who use this site every day.

Hold on. A fraction of millions. That could be a lot of bothered people.

No one says that you have to use the m word. If you don’t want to, don’t. George Thorogood would never have hit the charts with a song called Whom Do You Love. But think before you use who as a substitute. Some people still know the difference. Who knows when one of them will be listening?


For another take on this trick, see Grammar Girl’s Who Versus Whom.

“Her and I”: How to banish painful personal-pronoun pairings

My father is living with my wife and I.

A businessman recently sent this statement out to thousands of readers. Does the I hurt your ears?

It should. But if it doesn’t — if the I sounds right to you, or if you’re vaguely uncomfortable with it but aren’t sure why, or if you never know whether to say I or me but you favor I because you’ve heard lots of otherwise well-informed people talk that way — you’re not alone. Pronoun misuse is not unusual in today’s American parlance.

The trouble arises, as is so often the case, only when two parties are involved. No one would say My father is living with I. What trips people up is the and.

So get rid of it. At least cover up the and with your mind’s hand for a picosecond before you speak or write.

Example: Him/He and me/I went fishing this morning.

Cover up the and. Look at each pronoun by itself:

  • Him/He went fishing this morning.
  • Me/I went fishing this morning.

No problem. No one would say Him went fishing or Me went fishing. Don’t let that little troublemaker, and, change a thing. If it’s He went fishing and I went fishing, then it’s He and I went fishing.

Every time.

If your ear needs recalibrating, try these sentences. Say the correct versions out loud. Repeat until what’s right sounds right.

  • She/Her and I/me went to the store to get ice cream.
  • The armchair was big enough for her/she and I/me.
  • Are you coming to the game with she/her and me/I?
  • Will you drive him/he and I/me home?
  • That truck is perfect for she/her and me/I.
  • Throw the football to her/she and I/me.
  • Build him/he and I/me and house.
  • Grammar habits are not easy for they/them and me/I to unlearn.