Who and Whom: A User’s Guide

For such a small word, “whom” causes a lot of heartache. On the one hand, “whom” can feel like an affectation—the verbal equivalent of holding out one’s pinkie while holding a teacup. On the other hand, it’s easy to get “whom” wrong—the verbal equivalent of holding out one’s pinkie while spilling tea all over one’s pinafore.

In today’s episode of The Habit, I will attempt to provide a straightforward answer to the question of when to use who (or whoever) and when to use whom (or whomever). Unfortunately, the problem is complicated. We will start with the distinction between the nominative and the objective case (which comes naturally for a native speaker). From there we will get into the grammar of adjective clauses and noun clauses (which comes much less naturally).

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Congratulations Ensued: On Nominalization

Here’s a quick tip that can improve your writing almost immediately: for every sentence you write, make sure you can say where the real action is. What are the actions and who are the actors. Who is doing what? Then, make it your default to express the actions as verbs and the actors as the subjects of those verbs.

If this advice seems self-evident, it’s not. True, we all learn that verbs are action words, but the subject-verb nexus is only one of many ways that the English language allows us to communicate action. (Consider the fact that the word action is not a verb but a noun). I am not insisting that you always express actions as verbs and actors and subjects, only that you make it your habit to compose your sentences that way unless you have a reason not to.

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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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Connecting in Real Time: Some Thoughts on Sentence Structure

One of my favorite paintings is Landscape with Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Breughel. In the foreground is a farmer’s field on a seaside cliff, and a farmer plowing the field behind a horse. In the middle ground, on the right, a big merchant ship is sailing on a beautiful blue-green sea in the direction of a crowded port city. In the background, other tall ships sail across the sea.

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The Uses of the Colon

Last week I started a short punctuation series on semicolons, colons, and dashes. I had said it was going to be a two-part series, but I was only kidding myself. Once a person starts talking about colons and dashes, it’s hard to stop. So we find ourselves not at the end of a two-part series, but spang in the middle of a three-part series: colons today, dashes next week.

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What Are Semicolons for?

Habit reader recently asked about the use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. These punctuation marks can be exceedingly helpful for expressing nuance in your prose. But if you misuse them, bad things can start happening to good people. Nuance is a delicate flower; it wilts in the presence of faulty punctuation. This week’s issue of The Habit is the first of a two-part series on the effective use of these three punctuation marks. We’ll talk about semicolons today and colons and dashes next week.

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Love Thy Reader (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about loving your reader—flipping the switch from writing for what you can get from the reader to writing for what you can give to the reader. I didn’t quite get around to practicalities, but here in Part 2 I will attempt to show how loving your reader changes the way you think about every aspect of writing, right down to your grammar.

Loving Grammar

I’ve been putting together a new online course called Grammar for Writers. The driving principle of this course is that good grammar is a way to love your reader. I realize we don’t usually associate grammar with love. Even people who say they love grammar usually mean they love correcting other people’s grammar. (Did that sound judgmental? Well, if the Grammar Police are going to dish it out, they’d better learn how to take it too.) Consider the glee with which people collect and correct grammar and usage mistakes. Such grammar policing has nothing to do with love. I’m sure you’ve noticed how correct usage and spelling have been weaponized in online comments sections. If I can point out an opponent’s grammar and spelling mistakes, that feels like a pretty decent substitute for the moral high ground.

Too often we think of grammar in terms of correctness. Correctness tends to be about the writer. I strive for correct usage, not so much because I love my reader, but because I love myself and don’t want my reader to think I’m unintelligent or undereducated. 

Instead of thinking of grammar as a way of signaling something about me and my credentials, I have found it helpful to think of good grammar as a means of making life easier for the reader who might want to hear from me. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the passive voice requires extra decoding work from your reader; I argued that when you ask more of your reader it’s important that you give them more. That’s an example of what I mean when I say that loving your reader is relevant even to the grammar you use.

A friend of mine recently wrote the following sentence in a piece she submitted to a well-known website:

Social media shows us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.

Her editor pointed out that the word media is plural, not singular, so it would be more proper to write:

Social media show us tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and meet-ups we weren’t invited to, all providing fertile soil for jealousy.

The editor was correct. The word media is technically plural and technically should take a plural verb. But notice how the the grammar draws attention to itself in that clause, Social media show us. The reader pauses, steps out of the sentence, stops thinking about social media and inside jokes and jealousy altogether, and thinks, Social media show? Shouldn’t that be social media shows? No, social media is plural. I guess the writer got it right after all. 

Now, if you’re a certain kind of writer (I almost said certain kind of person), you may think this is an excellent outcome: the reader has thought about your skills as a grammarian and has judged you correct. If you are that kind of writer, you have your reward in full.

But if you care about your content and you care about your reader, and you want to introduce them to one another, you don’t want your readers to think about your grammar at all. You want them to stay in the sentence and think about social media, tight circles of friends, inside jokes, and jealousy. So you look for another way to skin that cat—a way that is grammatically correct without calling attention to the grammar. You might write something like: 

If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know about the tight circles of friends, the inside jokes, the meet-ups you weren’t invited to; all of this is fertile soil for jealousy.

That’s another lovely thing about English grammar: it is so flexible that it always gives you another way to love your reader.  

Loving Word Choice
I’ve gotten a number of questions lately about vocabulary and diction. This is another area in which it is helpful to discern your motives: are you choosing your words because you hope your reader will think or feel certain things about you, or are you choosing words that connect a reader you care about with content that you care about?

I appreciated the honesty of a writer who got in touch a couple of weeks ago, when “sophisticated fifth-graders” came up: 

I read the thesaurus when I actually was a quasi-sophisticated fifth grader, and I liked to try out new words in casual conversations with my big brothers. They often called me out. “Did you learn a new word today?” Even now, if I read an unfamiliar word in a novel, I stop and look it up, and often applaud the author. Basically, I have an abundant vocabulary, and I use it when I write. 

I’ve had occasions where I’ve used a word that I think is exactly right, but it might be a little obscure, and an editor will change it to something more commonplace. I understand — I don’t want to come across as a thesaurus-hound who tries to fancify my pedestrian prose — but I liked my word better!

There is nothing unusual about this writer’s struggle with word choice. I suspect that most of us who care about words could have written a similar couple of paragraphs, so I don’t wish to single this writer out for criticism. But do you see how much of this passage is concerned with how the writer comes across and what the writer wants? He doesn’t want to look like a thesaurus hound. He applauds authors for their obscure words and wants to use obscure words of his own. He pushes back on his editor because he likes his words better than the editor’s words. In these two paragraphs, there is a writer, there is an editor, there are even critics (the writer’s big brothers), but there is no reader. 

This writer (like the rest of us) needs to stop thinking about how he comes across and which words he likes to use, and he needs to start thinking about what helps connect the reader with content that the reader needs. When he does, that formidable vocabulary of his takes on a new significance. Now a big vocabulary represents more ways to give good gifts to his readers. Sometimes they need simple, straightforward words; sometimes they need to be stretched; sometimes they need metaphor and simile; sometimes they need vivid imagery; sometimes a well-placed five-dollar latinate word is just the thing. 

“I like my word better!” won’t convince an editor. But “I chose this word because it gives X and Y to the reader”—that’s a response an editor has to listen to. 

Killing Your Darlings

Somebody famously said, “Kill your darlings.” (Faulkner is usually credited as the source of that quotation, but this article from Slate suggests otherwise.) What are your darlings, and why should you kill them? In your writing, your darlings are those passages that cause you to suspect that you are a genius after all. You must be willing to sacrifice those darlings for the sake of the work—for the sake of the reader—”even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler’s heart,” as Stephen King put it.

But isn’t it possible that your writing that you love the best might actually be your best writing? It would be a shame to kill those darlings too. So how do you decide which darlings must be put to death? Once again, the principle “Love thy reader” comes to the rescue. 

Ask yourself why a darling passage is so dear to you. Is it dear because it makes you feel good about yourself? If so, feel good about yourself; you have written something beautiful or clever or funny or insightful. Rejoice. But that doesn’t mean you should foist it on the poor reader, who never signed up to affirm you or give meaning to your life.

But on the other hand, perhaps that passage is dear to you because it would be dear to your readers, giving them something that they couldn’t get for themselves. In that case, let that darling live. 

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