Who’s in Charge Here? More Fun With Relative Pronouns

Our recent discussion about using relative pronouns in content writing doubtlessly sharpened your interest for more pronoun-related excitement. I’m happy to oblige.

But first, a review for those who were napping during our last lesson. The relative pronouns are words that divert a sentence into a Pronoun Showdown: Who Versus Whomside branch (called a relative clause) which describes a noun already appearing in the sentence. There are only five relative pronouns in common use—that, which, who, whose, and whom. A few more appear very, very rarely.

A relative clause functions much as an adjective would by enriching the description of the noun under consideration. Let’s take a look at a few sentences containing relative pronouns, just to see how they work:

  • The lawyer THAT my friend Giselle recommended would never return my phone calls, so I fired him.
  • After a major studio picked up the distribution rights, Arthur’s student film became a blockbuster hit, WHICH surprised many industry insiders.
  • I can think of many high school students WHO would benefit from having homework assigned over summer vacation.
  • Denise is planning to marry Gary, WHOSE family is outraged by her political views.
  • The clerk to WHOM I complained about my defective trousers turned out to work for another department store altogether.

Notice that each of the relative pronouns starts a phrase that briefly interrupts the flow of the sentence to add more depth to a prior noun. The lawyer who wouldn’t return my phone calls? We now know that Giselle recommended him. Arthur’s cinematic triumph? That whole story left the industry gobsmacked. Denise and Gary are a charming couple, but we also learn that Gary’s family is judgmental about politics.

Got it? Great. Let’s press on…

Use “Who,” Not “That”

I Think I'm Gonna Be Sad. I Think it's Today, Yeah. The Girl That's Driving Me Mad Is Going Away

 

The relative pronoun “who” should be used only to refer to humans.

A few grammarians go further, saying that who must always be used instead of that when the referent noun is a person. I almost agree. The word “that” is much more common than “who.” Often, using who helps the reader keep track of which pronoun is referring to which noun. Nevertheless, if a writer really wants to use that to refer to a person, I can’t object; it’s a use that has appeared in English literature across hundreds of years.

Indeed, in recent website content that has crossed my desk, I have been seeing who used to refer to inappropriate nouns. Let’s analyze some cross-my-heart real-world examples, shall we?

  • “When you approached the stop sign, you realized that you actually needed to turn right, so instead of switching your blinker you just decided to make the turn. At that point, you slammed directly into the car next to you, who was also turning right.” Blunder. Who could refer to the driver of the adjacent car, but here it’s referent is the car itself. Use which instead of who here.
  • “One accident involved a car and an 18-wheeler who collided in an early morning crash on Interstate 35W just before Meacham Boulevard.” Blunder. An 18-wheeler is not a person. Use that instead of who.
  • “You have to deal with tricky and unscrupulous insurance companies who will do anything to deny you your rightful settlement.” Blunder. Frequently writers will assume that grammar treats groups of people the same as individuals. That’s not true. “Insurance companies” are things, not people. Use that instead of who here.
  • “Some people choose their pets because of a breed’s reputation for being edgy and dangerous dog. The result: a dog who further meets the stereotype of a ‘bad dog’.” Blunder. Animals are living beings but not human, and the right pronoun is that, not who.
  • “Businesses who offer medical insurance to their employees may spend over half of their profits on benefit claims, so it is worth it to the employer to invest in wellness programs.” Blunder. As with the word “companies” we looked at earlier, “businesses” are grammatically things rather than people and require that instead of who.

Use “Whose,” Not “Who’s”

The possessive form of who is whose. Who’s is a contraction that stands for “who is” or “who has.” It’s really that simple.

Use “Whom,” Not “Who”

For the most part, English relies on the position of a word within a sentence to determine the function of the word. This is in contrast to other languages—called inflected languages—that change the forms of words to determine their functions.

However, English still retains some traces of the inflected languages that contributed to its history. For instance, most nouns become plural by adding an -S at the end, changing the form of the noun to reveal a changed function.

Pronouns are another area where English retains its early inflection rules. Both nouns and pronouns have a characteristic called case. The case limits and defines the role of the word in a sentence:

  • A word in the nominative case is the subject of a sentence or a clause, or a word in the predicate that is set equivalent to the subject.
  • A word in the objective case is used as a direct object or the object of a prepositional phrase.

English nouns don’t change form between nominative and objective cases, but many pronouns do:

  • Nominative pronouns include she, they, I, you, we, and who.
  • Objective pronouns include her, them, me, you, us, and whom.
  • Possessive pronouns include hers, her, mine, my, your, yours, our, ours, and whose.

When a relative pronoun appears in a sentence and would require the objective case, it’s proper to use whom instead of who. A good way to test your instincts is to see which word—“he” or “him”—would sound better if swapped in for the pronoun. If you think that “him” would be a more pleasing substitute, then you are probably looking at an objective case function that would require “whom” instead of “who.”

You want some examples? Certainly!

  • “Where is the young man to whom I gave my box of crayons?” Here, whom is the object of the preposition “to.”
  • “I’m very angry at the person who ate my sandwich out of the office refrigerator!” We need the nominative case here, because who is the subject of the second clause.
  • “On my favorite soap opera, Janet loves Teddy, who is secretly the father of Hope’s twin sons.” Here, who is the subject of a clause with the verb “is,” rather than an action verb. The verb doesn’t matter, though: a subject always demands the nominative case.
  • “Most of the podiatrists whom I have consulted believe it’s just an ingrown toenail.” To fill the role of the direct object of the clause, we call upon whom rather than who.

The word “whom” has definitely fallen out of favor. It has nearly vanished from informal and spoken English in favor of “who.” Using whom is still formally correct in written English, but it often strikes readers as peculiar or stuffy. Now, you don’t want your website writing to appear stilted, so you may choose to ignore the rules of traditional grammar and use “who” instead of “whom” when you think it necessary.

Let’s Start a War!

You’re invited to use the comment section on this page to discuss your opinions about this article. Grammar purists, tell us how much you love “whom” and how it must not be sacrificed to appease the unlettered! Reformers, let us know how you celebrate the death of “whom” as a step toward clearing moth-eaten rules from English. And, if you’re not in the mood to join the fray, we invite you to browse the other grammar and usage pages on this website, where we endeavor to bring out the best in online content writers.

 

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