Who needs whom?

Some people think we should give up on “whom.” This pronoun gives English speakers and writers absolute fits. Still, I like “whom.” To me, it’s useful, and once you get it, it’s not that hard to use.

Remember that pronouns have varying forms for person, number and case. Case is the problem with “who” and “whom.” “Who” is the nominative form; it is used as the subject of a verb. “Whom” is the objective form; it is used as the object of a verb, a preposition or an infinitive.

I was reminded today (July 6) of the problem with “whom” when I read the beginning of a Page One story: 5 nabbed in drag racing. Here is the sentence in the third paragraph: This past weekend, after getting several tips, undercover troopers in Nash County arrested five men whom officers suspect coordinated a motorized rumble that brought more than 80 spectators to a two-lane road Sunday night. That “whom” should be “who.”

To puzzle out the answer, I break the sentence up and rearrange parts of it. The officers suspect that the five men are the ones who coordinated a motorized rumble … “Who” is the subject of the verb “coordinated” in the clause that describes the five men. (That’s why “who” and “whom” are called relative pronouns; they “relate” a clause to what it describes.)

Let’s substitute another pronoun and further break down the grammar. We could write: The officers suspect they coordinated a motorized rumble … If you can use “they” (or “he” or “she” or any other pronoun in the nominative case), then use “who.”

Here is a simple guide to pronoun case from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.