Monday, October 15, 2007

For Whom the Sentence Works

For those of us who profess grammar stickler-ness, the word whom makes our ears perk up like shaking a box of dog treats near a Chihuahua. Either the speaker or writer uses the word correctly or we are prepared to take offense at their refusal to get it right.

I know someone who prides himself on his grammar and vocabulary (no, not me, thank you very much). We collaborate on projects a few times each year and, outside of the occasional typographical error, I have never had to correct his writing. Yesterday, I did.

As you may have guess from the first paragraph, he had a “whom” problem. The source of his confusion was the phrase “of whom” that, on the surface, is perfectly correct. After all, whom is made to be the object and doubly that of a preposition.

Unfortunately, my esteemed colleague forgot to consider the context of his sentence. What he meant was, “of those people who we are to serve.” He left out “those people” as assumable, but then was left with “of whom we are to serve” which he compounded by changing it to “of whom”.

Were I forced to write this sentence, I would write, “of those we are to serve”. If a gun were held to my head so that I would retain the “who/whom” portion, I would stick with “who”. While the word follows a preposition, it is not the object of that preposition. It is a pronoun referring to “those people,” who have been chucked unceremoniously from the sentence.

I fear that I’ve muddied the swamp more than settled the waters, but perhaps this specific example will remind to look at more than just the adjacent words in your sentences when proofreading for grammar. And remember those words that you allow your reader to assume. They play a role in your sentence structure, whether they are written or not.