Monday, August 30, 2010

Whom is the Person Which I Know?

Recently Craig Lancaster wrote about pet peeves and whether we really should be holding onto them so tightly. I’m guilty of dozens of peeves and have bitten my tongue blue trying to be polite to my family who are equally guilty of misusing my peeves; sometimes deliberately. Craig’s post reminded me that we had some Ask the Editor questions about the proper use of who, whom, which, and that. These are some of my favourites, so, even though these were answered in the comments of that post, I thought I’d add my little memory tricks for determining the proper use of these words in context.

Who and Whom

Quick fix: 

Switch "who" and "whom" with "he" and "him" - if you can use “him” then you can use “whom”, in most cases.

"He is the author. I like him."
"He is the author whom I like."

It seems "whom" is falling away from general use. What do you think? Should we stop using it altogether, or should we try to preserve its use?

Who and That

Quick fix:

“Who” for people, “That” for things and animals.

More explanation:

This one is easy. “Who” is always used for people. “That” is always used for things or animals. Use “that” every time you would refer to something as “it”.

You would never ask a person “What are you?” when you mean “Who are you?”

Which and That

Quick fix:

“That” clause is important. “Which” clause is extra? (Remember, “Which” has an extra “H”.)

"Here is the bus that goes to the city."
"Here is the bus, which has a new engine, that goes to the city."

More explanation:

“That” is used to add a clause to a sentence where all the information is necessary for clarity. “Which” is used to add extra information in a clause that could be left out of the sentence, and still make sense. So if you can leave it out, use “which”.

Elsa NealElsa Neal is allowed a break from Word 4 Writers once a day to read the Blood-Red Pencil. She's decided she loves the word "peeve". You can find more of her grammar tips on her website.

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  1. I'm afraid I'm guilty of most of these, Elsa. As for whom, I think it should go.

  2. Thanks for the nod.

    I like "whom." Properly wielded, it has an elegance that is pleasing to the eye and to the ear.

    Regarding "that" as a relative personal pronoun: I agree that the better stylistic choice is "who," but "that" has a long, long, LONG history as a personal pronoun. In my day -- er, night -- job, I run a copy desk, and one of the things I like to talk about is the distinction between house style and legitimate usage. So much of what we do isn't a choice between absolute correctness and absolute incorrectness; it's simply a style choice to ensure consistency or a local preference.

  3. I still like "whom", but I think it follows along with the split infinitives mentioned in a previous post. If it fits your style, your writing voice, use it. Otherwise, it can sound forced and contrived. Thanks for the good tips.

  4. I have a peeve with Word's grammar tool: it thinks the word "character" is an object, where I see it as a person. So when I write a sentence such as, "We have now connected with a character who will stay alive in our memories," Word wants to change "who" to "that." "That" could also work here; it just wouldn't hammer home my point. Since the magic of fiction allows us to see characters as people, we sometimes must apply a filter of common sense to Word's determinations.

  5. Yes, Kathryn, Word is a bit inflexible, isn't it? More than that, it's downright frustrating at times.

    Language is always in flux. New words come into play. Rules are bent, ignored, and finally discarded by the masses. Those of us who cling to them move from the minority to the antiquated. Good structure and effective word usage, however, form the basis of powerful writing. Contracts, treaties, etc., depend on the precise use of language to define terms and set out regulations that affect millions of people. Explicit usage, therefore, is critical, and its lack can prove disastrous. So let's not forget that who, whom, which, and that (along with other "exact" words) occupy a proper place in our language tool box. They refine communication.

    The effective use of complex language (including the ability to learn several different tongues) elevates us above other creatures that share our planet. Let's not flush the rules down the toilet just yet.

    Your post that helps us to hone our usage is much appreciated, Elsa. Thank you for sharing this morsel for us to chew on. (Did I just end that sentence with a preposition?) :-)

  6. As it turns out, this week's installment of Jan Freeman's excellent "The Word" column takes on "the un-rules," including that vs. who:

  7. I'm afraid I don't understand referring to an animal as "that", because I don't usually refer to them as "it". I talk about my cat and my mare as "she", my dog and my gelding as "he", and my pets in general as "they". So, naturally I want to know "WHO got into the trash last night?"

    Gayle Carline, author of Freezer Burn

  8. Lauri,
    I think many of us are. Some of these memory tricks were to help me remember these rules.

    You're welcome. And thanks for the link; that is a very interesting article. I love this language debate.

    Absolutely. Artistic licence and all that.

    I hadn't thought of that issue. A "character" in Word, or computing in general, is any single letter, number, or symbol. Because, don't you know, Word is not intended to be used for writing... ;-)

    Language is fascinating, and I love (and hate) to trace what people do with it. Every now and then I open Chaucer just to marvel at how English has changed. But I do agree with you on the importance of explicit usage; I used to work with legal documents, so I know the painstaking care that goes into the wording.

    Funny you should raise the point about pets. Here's the paragraph I decided to cut from the post because it was getting too long:

    "...if you’re speaking to someone about a beloved pet, I recommend using "who" out of respect to their feelings. To them, their pet is not an "it", no matter how you may feel about the creature."

    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

  9. That and which drive me crazy (and possibly my editor nuts too, although I think I get them all before she sees them!!).


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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