Who, Me?

One of the most frequent misuses is “who” for “whom.” Many people are unable to get it right in everyday speech. But the error is also unforgivably common in major publications that have copy editors and proofreaders on staff.

Here are a few examples, all found in respected newspapers and magazines:

• “On your own, you may not know who you need to contact, while a recruiter has access to the decision makers.”

• “Not only do you have to know who you are talking to, you need to know how they listen.”

• “In China, as in combat, the agonizing choice of deciding who to save – or ignore… .”

Although the mistake is usually the use of “who” where “whom” is correct, as in the above three cases, sometimes it’s the other way around. The writer thinks he’s following the rules but still gets it wrong – a phenomenon called “hypercorrection.” Example: “Cellphones may make it easier for people to reach each other, yet Americans are very guarded about whom they want calling them.” It should be “who.”

Except in occasional tricky cases, it’s not difficult to avoid this error. When the referent is the object of the action, use “whom.” When the subject is the actor, it’s “who.”

Tip: If a preposition such as “to” or “for” is part of the construction, it’s “whom.” If not, “who” is most likely right. After all, no one would ever say “for who the bell tolls.”

The following sentence uses both who and whom correctly: “Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is embroiled in a messy fight with a security engineer whom it fired last month – but who it now fears left with information about a secret plan to boost the giant retailer’s lagging stock price.”

This passage also shows us how to avoid a common trap. You might assume that the second use should be “whom.” But the interpolated phrase “it now fears” can be misleading. Grammatically, it could be deleted, making it clear that “who… left with” is correct. When in doubt about “who” versus “whom” in a complicated sentence, try that quick test.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.