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All right, it’s time for the second grammar review section; last week’s looked at contractions and their homophones, and today I’ll look at who and whom.

The simplest advice I can give about using whom is not to. Contemporary English doesn’t require whom in any situation other than exceedingly formal writing. Just use who all the time.

Before you think that I’m just some lazy linguistic anarchist for suggesting this, let me point out that I am only agreeing with John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society and an editor at the Baltimore Sun, who writes:

“There is a problem that even educated writers have with figuring out whether a subordinate clause should begin with who or whom. If you have that difficulty, you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who.”

But perhaps you have a reason to use whom, whether because you need to write very formally, or because you have a stodgy teacher/superior who insists upon its use, or because you’re just good old-fashioned curious about the niceties of English grammar. In that case, here’s my advice on how it’s used.

In short, who and whom are the same word with different case markings. Who is in the nominative (or subjective) case, and whom is in the accusative (or objective) case. That’s the only difference — not that one is more formal than the other or anything like that.*

So knowing how to use whom is simply a matter of knowing when each case should be marked. Unfortunately, English rarely marks case, so it’s not something that we, as native English speakers, are used to thinking about. In fact, aside from who(m), the only other sort of case marking in English is on personal pronouns, and even then only on a few of them.** I and me, for instance, are nominative and accusative versions of each other, as are he and him, she and her, we and us, and they and them.

The first guideline, then, is to use whom wherever it replaces an accusative pronoun (me, him, her, us, them). So:

(1a) Who saw you? (She saw me.)
(1b) Whom did you see? (I saw her.)
(1c) Whom did you give the gift to? (I gave it to her.)

Your intuitions with personal pronouns’ cases are probably pretty accurate, so when you can rephrase the sentence, you’ll do well. The trouble is that you can’t always easily replace who(m) with a personal pronoun. For instance:

(2a) The fellow who(m) I saw at the bus stop
(2b) I don’t care who(m) did it.
(2c) Who(m)ever the werewolf stalks is in trouble.

Since there’s no question to answer here, you need to get a bit cleverer and look at the syntactic structure of the sentence. In these examples, who(m) is filling for a missing noun phrase somewhere in the sentence; linguists refer to the missing noun phrase as a “gap”, and who(m) as its “filler”. Even though the filler is usually in a different position from the gap, structurally the filler and gap are linked. Whatever case would be assigned to the gap manifests itself on the filler.

When the gap is an object, whom is appropriate. (2a) can use whom, because it’s filling a gap in the object of the verb saw.

When the gap is a subject, whom is inappropriate. (2b) can’t use whom, because the gap is the subject of the verb did.

(2c) gets tricky, because we seem to have two conflicting case assignments. Who(m)ever is the object of stalks, so you’d expect accusative case, but it also looks like the subject of is, so what do we do? In general, only the closest case assignment matters, and case doesn’t trickle down within a phrase. Since the subject of is is actually the whole phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks, not just who(m)ever, its case assignment doesn’t manifest. Only the assignment within the smaller phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks matters, and that’s accusative case from stalks. Thus whomever is appropriate here.

This is a bit subtle, and I don’t think I’ve done a great job of explaining it. (A newspaper columnist and I got into a fight about such a case assignment three years ago, and we still haven’t settled it.) This is the sort of situation where you’re probably best to just go with who; even if you have spent the time to prove to yourself that whom is correct, there’s a pretty good chance that someone else will insist that you’re hypercorrecting.

Summary: In contemporary American English, whom is necessary only in certain situations within very formal writing, so you can get by just fine without using it. If you choose to use it, remember that it is not the formal variant of who but rather the accusative-case variant of who. If who is replacing a subject of a sentence, it should never be whom. Whom is reserved for objects of verbs and objects of prepositions.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]
II: Who and whom [09/10/12]


*: Whom seems more formal because it’s mostly used in formal writing. In informal writing, who is the form for both nominative and accusative cases.

**: Technically speaking, the apostrophe-s on possessives is a way of marking genitive case, but that’s a topic for another time.

Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)

I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.

In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:

(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.

(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.

(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.

(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?

Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.

But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.

The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.

Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**

Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.

*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.

**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.

It’s the day after Labor Day, the traditional first day of school in my hometown. With the end of summer vacation comes a sound in the distance, the slow, steady approach of writing assignments. And so, as a fellow whose classes are still nearly a month away (ah, the quarter system!), I thought I’d toss together some basic grammar review for the new school year.

This series is going to be somewhat different from the rest of my posts; the matters under discussion are mostly settled, and I’ll be more prescriptivist than usual because they’re guidelines for writing that’s graded as much on adherence to Edited English as it is graded on content. I’m still going to let you know when a rule’s bunkum, but I might say it’s well-regarded bunkum that you’d be wise to adhere to.

Lastly, I’m trying to make this series accessible and simple, but I’m sure I’ll be coming up short of those goals in these first iterations. I’d love any advice or criticism of it that you’re willing to give, because I’d like to revise and improve these posts in the future. So thanks in advance for your comments.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]

Let’s continue the S-Series by talking about beside and besides. I’ve heard a lot of people kick up a fuss over these two, but having thought through their usage, I’m rather surprised. I don’t think a lot of native English speakers really confuse the two forms anymore. The two used to be pretty interchangeable, like toward and towards, but beside generally ceded its non-literal meanings to besides sometime in the 19th century.

Unfortunately, it’s always difficult to get good statistics on the prevalence of different meanings of a word, so I’m basing what I say here what the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and (to the least extent possible) my brain have to say on the matter. I’ve added corpus statistics where possible.

Next to: beside. The most literal meaning is also the primary meaning of beside in modern English. If you’re talking about physical positioning, you definitely want beside; the last attestation of physical-position besides in the OED is from 1440.

(1a) The purple couch beside the road
(1b) I am slightly concerned about the hungry tiger standing beside me.

Idiomatic nearness: beside the point. The “next to” meaning of beside is not limited to physical proximity; there are also idiomatic usages, the most prominent of which is beside the point. The alternative, besides the point, is rarely attested both historically and recently:

Adverb: besides. The OED reports that beside was once a standard adverb, but now it’s become obsolete in most of its adverbial usages and archaic in the rest. So use besides in sentences like:

(2a) Men? Sure, I’ve known lots of them. But I never found one I liked well enough to marry. Besides, I’ve always been busy with my work.
(2b) … lost her social position, job, and husband, and was broke besides. [MWDEU]

If you’re using it as sentence modifier, as in (2a), or as a clear adverb (i.e., without a noun following it (2b)), you probably want besides.

In addition to: besides. Now let’s return to prepositional usages. In modern English, the “in addition to” meaning almost always uses besides:

(3) There was no need to install additional software besides the game itself.

Beside used to be common in this usage, but it seems to have become rare in modern English (although I feel like it may be a common local variant in some places). I’ve found it only rarely in modern American writing, such as “Did Glenn mention anything beside the names I dropped?”, from COCA in 2002.

Other than: besides. A similar usage to the last one, again with besides as the primary modern form. Here I’m talking about using the word to mean something like “except”, as in:

(4a) Having been lost in the forest for days, I began to forget whether I’d ever eaten anything besides acorns.
(4b) Will Los Angeles ever be something besides a “suburban metropolis”?

Summary & caveat

So, in general, beside is used for literal and figurative nearness, and besides takes pretty much everything else (especially all other metaphorical usages).

That said, there is an important point here: each of the suggestions I’ve made above is still a bit fluid, since the distinct usages often didn’t start ossifying until the 19th century. Different usages and different people will vary on how much one form is preferred over the other. Adding an s in (1b) is straight out for me, but dropping the s in (3b) just sounds dialectal. And the further you go back in English, the more the usages will blend together.

Lastly, the promised caveat: it’s very hard to get clear data on the usage patterns of different senses of a word, so while I’m confident that these rules of thumb are accurate for my own idiolect, and fairly confident that they apply to standard American English, I’m not sure how well they reflect non-American Englishes. Use them at your peril.

The S-Series so far:
S-Series I: Anyway(s) [02/03/11]
S-Series II: Backward(s) [06/14/11]
S-Series III: Toward(s) [08/29/11]
S-Series IV: Beside(s) [12/07/11]

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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