Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Whimsical Whom and Insensible I

Everyone wants to sound smart, right?

"Of course we do, Stephen," you all collectively cry, adjusting your monocles and top-hats.  Well my friends, it's time to address something that frequently arises when people try just a wee bit too hard to sound academic and edumacated.  It's easy to pick up on phrases that float around academia enough, and it's even easier to mess them up and make yourself look like a goober.  Two errors that are frequently over-corrected are the improper use of "whom" and "I".

Me vs. I
(could a sub-title get any more schizophrenic?)
When you were in kindergarten asking your teacher if you and Jim could have a cookie, did you get a finger waggled in your face as the kind teacher explained you always put others first and use I instead of me?  Well, even though sweet old Mrs. Sputzweizer had your best interests at heart, she unfortunately led you astray.  Most of the time you will use "I", but only because we humans are greedy little buggers that like to be the center of attention.

So here's the scoop:  When you and whatever buddy you plan on dragging with you are the subject of a sentence, you follow Mrs. Sputzweizer's advice and use "I".  Here's an example:

Jim and I flew through the air with our new superpowers, looking for villains to vanquish.

However, this isn't always the case.  If you and your buddy end up being the target of someone else's shenanigans (or any other calamity befell you), then you'd no longer hold that illustrious position of subject.  Congratulations.  You're now the object -- the one being acted upon by the verb.  When that happens, ignore Mrs. Sputzweizer and use "me".  Check it:

The radioactive laser-eating dragon beat the ever-living daylights out of Jim and me.

See how that works?  The subject in this sentence isn't me.  Nor is it Jim.  It's the radioactive laser-eating dragon using us as a punching bag.  Since "beat" refers to the action being taken upon Jim and myself, we've become the object of the sentence.  Thus, "me".

Here's a quick and dirty trick to remembering which one to use.  If you eliminate the other party and it still sounds right, you've chosen properly.  For example, you'd never hear anyone talk about "the radioactive dragon that beat the tar out of I."  That's just ... weird.  It's wrong.  Most of us have been around the human language long enough to recognize how odd it sounds when you swap out the subject and object pronoun.  Isolate it and see if it still sounds right.

Who vs. Whom
(which could serve as the headline to a mystery fight)

"Whom owns this book?"

I heard that in the library one day.  I never caught a glimpse of who actually said it, but I imagine they looked very proud for using such a university-friendly word.  Unfortunately, our mystery scholar used this word incorrectly.  Go ahead, read it out loud.  It sounds strange, doesn't it?  While this little sneak is a little harder to identify by ear than "I" and "me", most people can still recognize that such an over-corrected phrase sounds weird.

Fun fact: The who/whom issue is directly related to I/me.  They're both inexorably tied up with subject and object.  Determining whether to use "who" or "whom" in a given sentence comes back to whether you're referring to the subject or object.  Small world, isn't it?

If you're referring to the subject of a sentence, you use "who", like in the example below:

Who wants ice cream?

The subject of this interrogative is the ice-cream-starved men and women in question.  You could just as easily replace "who" with any other subject without ruining the structure of the sentence (though it would no longer be a question):

Bob wants ice cream.
The cat wants ice cream.
The radioactive laser-eating dinosaur wants laser ice cream.

Conversely, when referring to the object of a sentence, you use -- that's right, you guessed it! -- "whom".

Whom does she truly love?

Does that sound a little strange?  It might, but it's technically correct.  Even though "whom" comes first in this sentence, the subject of the question is "she".  If you re-worded it using a different pronoun, it would read "Does she truly love him?"  Our mysterious maiden is the subject here.  The poor man who finds himself subject to her fluctuating feelings is the object of the verb "love".

Here's the quick and dirty trick for that one.  Try and use the pronouns "him" and "he" in the sentence.  If you find "he" fits, then you'll most likely be using "who".  If you find "him" a better match, then "whom" is likely the right choice.

Who knows where the chips went?
He knows where the chips went!

For whom should I vote?
I should vote for him!

So now you know the secret key to avoiding these over-corrections.  Keep your subjects and objects straight, and even Mrs. Sputzweizer and her dusty-smelling perfume won't distract you from your course!

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