Problematic Pronouns

Who or Whom? | Whoever or Whomever? Did Carl Sagan Goof? Reference Problems | Which or That? | My Wife and I? | Inclusive Pronouns | Singular Their | My or Me? | "Me, Myself, and I" | More Me, Myself, and I | English in San Diego

Who or Whom?


Could you tell me the proper use of the pronouns "who" vs "whom"?


Who relates to whom in the same way he relates to him. Who is the subject, whom is the object.

We can keep most pronouns straight most of the time. Native speakers of English, for instance, would never say, "Him go to the party" or "The ball hit he." Yet when using who/whom those same speakers often get confused.

The confusion arises because who and whom are used only in questions — "Who called?" "To whom did she speak?" — or in relative clauses:

  • "The boy who lives next door called us."
  • "She spoke to George, with whom she had attended many meetings."

Use whom with prepositions:

  • He admired the speaker, for whom he had voted in several elections. ("He had voted for [whom] her in several elections.")
  • To whom did you send this letter? ("You sent the letter to [whom] him.")

Use whom when an objective pronoun is clearly needed:

  • Whom did they choose? ("They chose [whom] us.")
  • She was astonished when Rochester, whom she had never seen before, greeted her like a long-lost friend. ("She had never seen [whom] him before.")

When in doubt — use who.

For further information, look at the pronoun table and read the letters below:

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Whoever or Whomever?

Question:In the sentence "I like whomever likes me," what sentence part is the word "whomever"?

"Whomever" cannot be a relative pronoun since it is part of a noun clause and not an adjective clause (and therefore is not "relating" anything to the rest of the sentence). It is not part of an adverb clause and therefore cannot be a subordinating conjunction. . . .

I . . . have dubbed these words subordinate pronouns, a term I made up. What do you call them? . . . . Been wondering about this for years.

Answer: Beyond any question, pronouns are among the more bothersome parts of speech.

As you observe, some grammatical terms are inadequate. In the example you give, "whomever" does not act like a relative pronoun; it does not refer to anything in the main clause. Your invention of "subordinate pronoun" makes sense. Unless they are used in questions, relative pronouns always introduce dependent clauses.

But another issue arises in your example: the question of "whomever/whoever." "Who/whom" distinctions can befuddle the brightest. The example you quote, "I like whomever likes me, " illustrates one of the many problems this distinction creates.

Let us break down the sentence:

I [subject] like [transitive verb] whomever likes me [a dependent clause functioning as the direct object]

Now, one would suppose that "whomever" is the right pronoun to use. It appears, after all, in a clause that is the object of the main verb.

However, when we break down the dependent clause, we see that the pronoun needs to be in the subjective case:

whoever [subject] likes [transitive verb] me [direct object]

How the pronoun functions in its own clause determines its case:

  • If the pronoun is the subject of its own clause, it takes the subjective case (who, whoever).
  • If the pronoun is the object in its own clause, it takes the objective case (whom, whomever).

How the pronoun's clause functions in the sentence doesn't matter.

Many word mavens believe that "whom" is disappearing from the language and that we shall be quite rid of it in a matter of decades. Some hope that is the case.

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Did Carl Sagan Goof?

Question:The following sentence in Carl Sagan's book, The Demon-Haunted World, left me confused:

"Nicole also reported that she had given birth to three children who her relatives had killed."

Am I missing something here? You may ignore the morbid content and whether or not a comma should be placed after "children." Shouldn't whom be used instead of who? If Sagan and his editors are correct, why?

Answer: You are right; Sagan and his editors goofed! The pronoun is the object of the verb in the relative clause ("her relatives had killed them"); it should therefore be "whom" — not "who."

I do not know whether they just made a mistake or decided on principle to eliminate "whom" from their pronoun list. Some writers believe that "whom" is dying and have decided to play a linguistic Kevorkian to that hapless pronoun.

The missing comma, as you note, creates further problems:

 "Nicole also reported that she had given birth to three children who her relatives had killed."

Does this mean that there are other children her relatives had not killed?

If the unfortunate Nicole had given birth to no more than three children — living or dead — then the sentence should read:
 "Nicole also reported that she had given birth to three children, whom her relatives had killed."

Nonetheless, it remains a grisly sentence. I trust the book is still worth reading, despite the lapses.

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Reference Problems

Question: My students have a common writing tendency. They often fail to let the reader know who or what is the subject. For example: John and Dave went to the store. He bought shoes. He liked them. They were nice. Then he bought a sweater.

The reader is left wondering what happened. My question is, what do we call this type of mistake? When I talk to parents or colleagues I want to know the correct term.

Answer: Ambiguous pronoun references are usually called "reference problems." Reference problems commonly occur with personal pronouns, as you have described, or with demonstrative pronouns, like "this" and "these."

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Which or That

Question: I thoroughly enjoyed your Miss Grammar feature. Perhaps you can help me by clarifying the use of "that" when used as a restrictive pronoun, and "which" when used as a nonrestrictive pronoun.

It is my understanding that "that" is used as a restrictive pronoun in the sentence: The book that is on the table is his. Therefore, no comma is required. However, a comma is needed for: The book, which is on the table, is his. Is this correct? Could you please clarify restrictive versus nonrestrictive pronouns? Thank you for your help.

Answer: You are correct to use "which" with commas. Some writers use "which" (without commas) in restrictive phrases and clauses, however — which would confuse me. Most writers and usage authorities prefer "that" to introduce restrictive word groups.

Usually if you can omit the "that" (or the comma-less which) without changing the meaning, you know you have a restrictive phrase or clause: The book on the table is his. (Other books exist: The book on the chair is mine.) "On the table" and "on the chair" affect the meaning of the word, distinguishing his/my book from other possible books.

Nonrestrictive clauses provide additional information: The book, which is on the table, is his. (No other books are being discussed.)

Another example: They have 10 dogs that bark. (They may have other dogs that howl.) Versus: They have 10 dogs, which bark. (All dogs are accounted for.)

By the way, some grammarians use the terms "essential" and "nonessential" instead restrictive and nonrestrictive.

Thank you for writing — and for your kind words.

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My Wife and I?


Question: I have a minor question regarding the correctness of the following sentence: "Pictures of my wife and I"

As a title/heading, is this entirely incorrect? I would appreciate a directive response.

Answer: You need to use the pronoun's objective case — something you would hear and see immediately if you used just the pronoun alone: "pictures of me." So, it should be "pictures of my wife and me."

You might find the pronoun chart helpful.

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Inclusive Pronouns

Question: I often find that I need a singular pronoun to refer to an individual whose sex is unknown. In past years, I would have used "he" and never have given it a second thought. Today, that obviously will not do. . . .

Answer: Problems can arise when an indefinite pronoun (or a noun) is replaced with a singular personal pronoun, such as he or she. When they refer to homogeneous groups, singular personal pronouns are fine: None of the brothers thought himself better than the others.

But do not use singular personal pronouns to describe members of groups that are or could be heterogeneous: "Every secretary should help her boss keep his calendar up to date" will get you into hot water! Job descriptions, policies, regulations--any writing intended for both men and women must use inclusive language. Three simple techniques will help you revise:

  1. Avoid third-person pronouns where possible.
  2. Use plural pronouns (they, their) and plural verbs for most constructions;
  3. experiment with "we" or "you."
  4. Match indefinite pronouns with the plural pronouns "they" and "their." This choice has historical legitimacy, is acceptable for all informal writing and — if used consistently — for formal writing as well (though some will raise their eyebrows). You can also use the pronoun pairs "he or she," and "his or her," though I find them awkward.

Take a look at the usage discussion in the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition, under "he."

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Singular Their

Question: Thank you for an excellent site and source of information. As I was perusing this site, I came across this sentence in the section on Usage and, specifically, the section on addressing an envelope:

"If you have a principal guest with their spouse..."

Should the word "their" not be "his/her" in order to agree with "guest" which is singular? I know the use of his/her tends to be awkward at times; what is your opinion?

Answer: Thank you for your kind words — and for asking this question!

Yes, generally singular nouns take singular pronouns. But as you aptly note, "his/her" is awkward and using only "his" skews the meaning of a sentence. Using "their" as a singular, inclusive pronoun has historical precedent and promotes the meaning better than those choices.

An excellent FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions list) on "Gender Neutral Pronouns" appears at http://www.aetherlumina.com/gnp/.

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My being? Me being?

Question: Which is the correct one ?

— There was no reason for MY being there.
— There was no reason for ME being there.

Answer: The possessive (my) is correct: There was no reason for my being there.

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"Me, Myself, and I"

Question: Could you please clarify which is correct:

  1. "If you would like to leave a message for Tom or myself, please do so at the tone." or
  2. "If you would like to leave a message for Tom or me, please do so at the tone."
  3. "If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact Jim or myself." or
  4. "If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact Jim or me."

Thank you so much for your help. I choose B and D, but my co-workers disagree with me. I love your Web-site. Thanks again.

Answer: You are correct: The pronouns me, us, you, him, her, them, and whom are in the objective case. All of the "self" pronouns are reflexive or intensive pronouns: "He did it to himself"; "she herself would never drive there."

It is a common mistake to use the reflexive pronoun instead of the objective — but it is a mistake. You might find the pronoun table useful.

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Me, Myself, and I, Continued

Question: As an English major, I am always trying to improve the way I speak. I also pay special attention to the way that others speak.

However, there is one common error I hear even from some of my English professors. They usually say it when they are referring to something that they did with a group of people. For example, " Ms. Jones, Mr. Conley, and myself are all going to be a part of the program. "

If I am not mistaken, it's supposed to be "Ms. Jones, Mr. Conley, and I are all going to be a part of the program." It should be I instead of myself because we would not say: "Myself is going to be a part of the program." Please tell me what you think.

Answer: You are correct. In the nominative (or subjective), the phrase should be "Ms. Jones, Mr. Conley, and I." In the objective, the phrase should be "Ms. Jones, Mr. Conley, and me" (as in "The group includes Ms. Jones, Mr. Conley, and me").

Reserve the "self" pronouns for use as reflexives (he drove himself home) and intensifiers (she herself would never read that magazine). If you use the reflexive, also use the nominative: he/himself, she/herself.

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English in San Diego

Follow-up to a writer who insisted that "John and me went surfing" was standard English in San Diego. . . .

Standards for the spoken language vary with region, class, and education. The people I work with generally distinguish — in their speech and writing — the nominative ("John and I") from the objective ("John and me"). In San Diego speech patterns may differ, but my surfing cousins there distinguish between the nominative and objective (at least when I'm around).

The standards for written English reflect a world-wide consensus. It does not matter whether you are in San Diego or Melbourne or London: Writing "John and me are friends" would brand you as a writer of nonstandard English.

©1996-99, H. Moody, PhD: All Rights Reserved.

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