LawProse Lesson #176: “Who” vs. “whom”

LawProse Lesson #176: “Who” vs. “whom”

Who vs. whom. Edward Sapir, the philosopher of language, prophesied in 1921 that “within a couple of hundred years . . . . not even the most learned jurist will be saying ‘Whom did you see?’ By that time the whom will be . . . delightfully archaic . . . . No logical or historical argument will avail to save this hapless whom.” Language 156–57. Well, in the last 93 years whom hasn’t exactly become archaic, and it doesn’t look to be in danger of full extinction. There may yet come a day when no distinction is made between who and whom, but until then, lawyers and nonlawyers alike ought to understand how to use these words correctly. As an overall guideline, keep in mind that who acts as (1) the subject of a verb or (2) the complement of a linking verb; whom acts as (1) the object of a verb or (2) the object of a preposition. Some examples make this clearer. Who as the subject of a verb: Ex.: Please tell me who wrote that superb brief. [Who is the subject of wrote.] Ex.: He hired an accountant who he believes can handle the task. [Who is the subject of can (he believes is simply a parenthetical assertion).] Who as the complement of a linking verb: Ex.: They know who you are. [Are links the subject you to the complement who in this inverted construction.] Ex.: He is who he is. [Who is the complement of both instances of he.] Whom as the object of a verb: Ex.: Judith, whom I call a friend, is moving to our neighborhood next week. [Whom is the object of call.] Ex.: Those are the professors whom she thanked in her speech. [Whom is the object of thanked.] Whom as the object of a preposition: Ex.: James Robert is the attorney to whom we are indebted. [Whom is the object of to.] Ex.: For whom does the bell toll? [Whom is the object of for.] Of those four usages, who most strongly encroaches upon whom‘s territory as the object of a verb. In this one instance, whom feels creakier year by year. Yet formal writers stick to it. William Safire took an interesting approach for those who fear seeming pedantic (by using whom) or being incorrect (by using who for whom): “When whom is correct, recast the sentence.” “On Language,” N.Y. Times, 4 Oct. 1992, § 6, at 12. It seems unlikely, however, that anyone will have much success with “For what person does the bell toll?” Next week: whoever vs. whomever. Further reading: Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 944-45 (3d ed. 2011). Garner’s Modern American Usage 860-62 (3d ed. 2009). The Chicago Manual of Style § 5.52, at 218 (16th ed. 2010).

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