Back in the 70s, that question was asked in a distinctively nasal whine by Ernestine the Telephone Lady on the television comedy show Laugh-In.
It was a funny line partly because actress Lily Tomlin was great as the goofy Ernestine. But it was also funny because the sentence sounds stilted and pretentious – although grammatical correct.
Ernestine and her trademark “to whom” inquiry came to mind recently when a friend asked my advice on whether “who” or “whom” should be used in a sentence she was writing.
I wasn’t sure, so we looked up the rule. Here is what we found:
“Who” is a subjective pronoun like “he,” “she,” “it,” “we,” and “they.” It acts as the subject of a clause or sentence. “Whom” is an objective pronoun, like “him,” “her,” “it,” “us,” and “them.” It acts as the object of a clause or sentence.
Simple, right? So which of the following is correct (the answer appears below):
(a) His brother, whom he said would send him the money …
(b) His brother, who he said would send him the money …
Hmmm, maybe not so simple after all. The more you read the choices out loud, the weirder each one sounds.
Which proves the point: knowing a rule is one thing; following it can be trickier.
Good grammar is like good hygiene. Both require daily practice to build healthy habits.
And both are especially important for lawyers and legal professionals, who depend on clear and accurate communication – not to mention smelling nice – for professional success.
12 Grammar Traps
Following are 12 Common Grammar Mistakes that many of us make every day:
- Your/You’re – Your is a possessive pronoun: “Your lawyer is great.” You’re is a contraction of you and are: “You’re a great lawyer.”
- Its/It’s – Its is a possessive pronoun: “Every case has its good points.” It’s is a contraction of it and is: “It’s a good case.”
- Farther/Further. Farther means a measurable distance: “I threw the ball farther than you.” Further refers to abstract lengths that can’t always measured “Throwing the ball caused further damage to my elbow.”
- Affect/Effect – Affect is a verb: “A persuasive brief affects the trial outcome.” Effect is usually a noun: “The effect of a persuasive brief is to affect the trial outcome.”
- Whether/If. Whether expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives: “I don’t know whether I will go to law school.” If expresses a condition where there are no alternatives: “I will go to law school if I get a scholarship.”
- Principal/Principle. Principal, as a noun or adjective, means the highest in rank or most important in a group: “The principal reason I became a lawyer is to help people.” Principle is a noun meaning a fundamental truth or standard: “Helping people is a basic principle of the law.”
- Fewer/Less – If you can count it, use fewer: “I have fewer cases today.” If you can’t count it, use less: “I have less desire to take on any new cases.”
- Since/Because. Since refers to time: “Since I became a lawyer I’ve been happy with my life.” Because refers to causation. “I became a lawyer because I was unhappy with my life.”
- Anyone/Any one – Anyone means any person, not necessarily a specific person: “Anyone can be a lawyer.” Any one refers to a single person: “Success in this case doesn’t depend on any one person.”
- There/Their/They're - There can specify a place or be used as an expletive to start a sentence: “There is my lawyer.” Or: “There. I’ve finished the job.” Their is the possessive form of they: “The lawyers argued their cases.” They’re is a contraction for they are: “They’re both tired after arguing so long.”
- Historic/Historical – Historic means an important event. Historical means something that happened in the past.
- Site/Sight - Site is a location or place. Sight refers to your sense of vision.
Quiz Answer: The correct answer is (b), according to Strunk & White. In the example, who is the subject of the verb “send.”
If you find yourself grammatically stumped, you can call Ernestine the Telephone Lady. Or you can turn to the following resources:
- The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. A free online version of this book is available here.
- On Writing, by Stephen King. A terrific little book on the craft of writing by the master of the macabre.
- Copy Blogger
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He can’t figure out the difference between “compared to” and “compared with.” Enlighten him at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 919-619-2441.