English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: For ‘Who’ the Bell Tolls?

Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we learned that 59% of our readers would never use “their” in the place of “his or her” when referring to a gender-neutral singular noun. After all, using “their” might sound better, but that certainly doesn’t make it the right word choice.

And that brings us to the topic of this week’s Grammer Pole, which came to me while I was listening to Metallica yesterday afternoon. Guys in heavy metal bands know when to use “whom,” so why don’t lawyers? Because sometimes, it just sounds better when you’re wrong….

Before we delve into the debate, I should give you a quick refresher on the correct way to use these pronouns. Typically, “who” is used when referring to the subject of a clause, and “whom” is used when referring to the object of a clause. Grammar Girl has a great tip for proper usage:

Like whom, the pronoun him ends with m. When you’re trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the answer to the question would be he or him. That’s the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with him, then use whom, and it’s easy to remember because they both end with m.

For example, if you’re trying to ask, “Who (or whom) do you love?” The answer would be “I love him.” Him ends with an m, so you know to use whom. But if you are trying to ask, “Who (or whom) stepped on Squiggly?” the answer would be “He stepped on Squiggly.” There’s no m, so you know to use who.

Now that we know the basics, let’s turn to some expert opinion. In Garner’s Modern American Usage (affiliate link), grammar guru Bryan Garner says that people often don’t use “whom” when they should, “perhaps because they consider the word stuffy.”

The California Supreme Court apparently agrees — they’re no snoots. Here’s one of the examples Garner provides in his book:

This, Garner says, is a classic example of a casualism, an expression that “make[s] up the least formal type of standard English,” one that is “standard only in informal contexts.” A state supreme court decision certainly isn’t an informal venue, but the improper use of “who” here sounds better.

And that brings us to this week’s poll. Now that you know when to use “who” versus “whom,” should you go with “whom” even if it makes your phrasing sound terrible? Let us know:

Should you go with 'whom' even when it sounds awkward?

  • Yes, casualisms be damned! A lawyer should properly address the audience with whom he speaks. (79%, 549 Votes)
  • No way, dude. A lawyer shouldn't worry about properly addressing the audience with who he speaks. (13%, 94 Votes)
  • Who cares? I have a paralegal to take care of this stuff for me. (8%, 54 Votes)

Total Voters: 697

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Who Versus Whom [Grammar Girl]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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