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.