A Simple Trick for Remembering When To Use Who vs. Whom

g-stockstudio/iStock via Getty Images
g-stockstudio/iStock via Getty Images

In casual messages with friends or water cooler conversations with colleagues, it might not seem particularly important to use perfect grammar—and saying whom can sometimes make an exchange seem formal in a way that doesn’t match the situation. But there are still plenty of instances when perfect grammar is necessary, like emails to the CEO of your company, published works, or telephone talks with your persnickety relatives.

For those times, Lifehacker has a nifty mnemonic device to help you remember when to use who vs. whom. In short, mentally swap out the who or whom in your sentence with he or him. If he sounds right, you should use who. If him is the obvious winner, go with whom.

This works because who and he are both subjective pronouns; that is, you use them to refer to the subject of the sentence. In “Who let the dogs out?”, the subject of the question is the person letting the dogs out. If you replace who with he there, you get an equally intelligible sentence: “He let the dogs out.” Neither whom nor him would work, because they’re both objective pronouns—you substitute them for the noun that receives the action of the sentence. Since you wouldn’t say “Him let the dogs out,” you shouldn’t say “Whom let the dogs out.”

In the sentence “Whom will you invite to dinner?”, you is the subject, and the person you invites to dinner is the object. Just like in the first example, it’s easier to discern whether he or him works if you rephrase the question as a statement. “You will invite him to dinner” sounds fine (if a little bossy), while “You will invite he to dinner” frankly sounds hilarious.

You can definitely substitute who and whom with other pronoun combinations like she and her or they and them if you’d rather, but the reason he and him work so well is because they sound similar to who and whom—the only aural differences are the vowels.

As a consolation prize for the hassle of having to think about who vs. whom, here’s a grammar rule you probably use correctly every day without even realizing it.

[h/t Lifehacker]

Farther vs. Further: There’s an Easy Way to Remember the Difference, and When to Use Which

imtmphoto/iStock via Getty Images
imtmphoto/iStock via Getty Images

Even for native speakers, the English language is full of booby traps. That's why people are so hesitant to use whom instead of who, and why thinking about the differences between lay and lie is enough to give professional linguists a headache. One of the more common pitfalls is further vs. farther: Both words describe similar situations, and there's only one letter separating them. Though they're often used interchangeably, there is a difference between further and farther, and luckily for anyone who struggles with grammar, there's an easy trick to remember what it is.

Further and farther are both used in relation to progress, but the type of progress they describe differs. According to Quick and Dirty Tips, farther is reserved for physical distance, i.e. "the runner was farther down the track than his competitor," while further is used for figurative or metaphorical scenarios, such as "the senator was interrupted before she could go further in her speech."

The best way to remember this is to look at the first three letters of the words. Farther starts with far, a word that's associated with physical distance. This can remind you to use farther when describing things like car trips and walks, and save further for concepts like projects, movies, and dreams.

This distinction is clear enough, but things can get sticky when it's not totally obvious if a statement is dealing with physical or metaphorical distance. Take the sentence "the writer had gotten farther in her poem by the afternoon" as an example. If the progress being referred to is lines on a page, farther works just fine, but if the speaker is talking about the poem as a piece of art, further may be more more appropriate. In such instances, it's usually safest to default to further: Usage for farther is slightly stricter, and because further deals with situations that are already hard to define, you can get away with using it in more contexts. And if you still get them mixed up, don't let it bother you too much. Merriam-Webster notes that great writers have been using farther and further interchangeably for centuries.

[h/t Quick and Dirty Tips]

The Very Particular Grammar Rule You Probably Never Knew—But Use Every Day

CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images
CarlosDavid.org/iStock via Getty Images

You don’t have to know the precise grammar rule behind the sentence Me went to the store to know that it’s wrong—but you probably learned it in school, even if you don’t remember it. Object pronouns like me can’t be used as subjects; it should be the subject pronoun I. In other cases, you probably don’t even realize that there is a grammatical explanation behind why a certain sentence or phrase sounds wrong. Big, red machine sounds much better than Red, big machine, right? As Inc. reports, that’s because we automatically use adjectives in a really specific order.

In his lovely, rectangular book The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth illustrates that order with this example: Lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. The adjectives start with opinion (little) and progress through an additional seven categories, ending with purpose (whittling).

Here’s the full breakdown:

1. Opinion (lovely)
2. Size (little)
3. Age (old)
4. Shape (rectangular)
5. Color (green)
6. Origin (French)
7. Material (silver)
8. Purpose (whittling)

If you significantly alter that order, you might make it difficult for your listeners or readers to even understand the meaning. Whittling French green lovely rectangular silver old little knife sounds like nonsense. Breaking up whittling and knife with any adjective, like whittling French knife or whittling little knife, almost makes it sound like the knife is currently whittling.

Forsyth’s classification system works well with his example phrase, but he’s not the only grammarian with thoughts on the matter. Cambridge Dictionary offers its own classification system, which includes two extra categories: Physical quality (like thin or rough) and type (like general-purpose or four-sized).

It also slightly reorders Forsyth’s categories, as you can see below:

1. Opinion
2. Size
3. Physical quality
4. Shape
5. Age
6. Color
7. Origin
8. Material
9. Type
10. Purpose

According to those rules, Forsyth’s whittling knife should be a lovely little rectangular old knife, rather than a lovely little old rectangular knife. Breaking up little and old might sound odd, but it’s possible that we’re just really accustomed to hearing little and old right next to each other, as in little old lady or little old me.

As is common in the world of linguistics, there are often different interpretations—and almost always exceptions—when it comes to grammar, and you can definitely rely on your instincts for this one, since they’ve likely been serving you well before you ever knew about adjective order. Hopefully, you’ll never need to describe a noun with more than a few adjectives, anyway.

Curious what other grammar rules you didn’t know you knew? Here are four more.

[h/t Inc.]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER