Grammar Guerilla: Him, Her, Whom, He She, and Who

Guerilla GorillaSince the wizards of education theory gave up on Latin as a “dead language” English grammar has declined. It doesn’t have to be that way. Learning Latin (or Greek) does improve English grammar but you can improve your English usage without learning Latin or Greek simply by making a simple distinction that you already understand.

Listen closely today. I’m confident that you will hear someone say, “Her and So and So did such and such” (or “Him and so and so…”). Why is this wrong? It’s incorrect because the forms he and she are in the subject case and her and him are in the object case. Subjects and objects are different things. They have different functions. Used correctly: “She threw him out of the window” or “He threw the frisbee to him.” Her and him are either the direct object of the action (i.e., something is done to them) or the indirect object. In the sentence, “He made dinner for her.” He is the subject. The dinner is the direct object. He acts directly upon the dinner (in making it and then later in eating it!). The person who received the dinner is the indirect object. They have two distinct roles.

This happens frequently with who and whom. Who is the subject and whom is the direct or indirect object. “Who called?” To express the person receiving the call use whom. “Whom did he call?”  To express the person making the call use who. “Usain Bolt ran so fast he that defeated Fred, whom he has defeated 73 times consecutively.” If, in the subordinate clause beginning after the comma, we used who the sentence would become ambiguous.

Grammatically, he, she, and who are parallel and him, her, and whom are parallel.

If we distinguish between subject and object (which is important in other ways too) we will be clearer and avoid confusion.

Someone will object, “Don’t be pedantic. Language evolves. When someone says ‘her and me went to the mall.’ we know what they mean and that’s all that matters.” Yes, language does evolve but it also devolves into chaos and confusion. The most likely reason that one might say “him and me drank a beer” is that the speaker doesn’t know the difference between the subject and object. That ignorance is likely to manifest itself in other constructions that will be confusing.

The objection assumes that grammatical rules are arbitrary, that there is no real relation between reality and language. That’s a big and quite dubious assumption. There is a real connection between language and the way things are. There are subjects and objects and they are not the same thing. They do not ordinarily perform the same function. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s the great thing about exceptions: they test the rule but they aren’t the rule.

The old radio commercial was correct: people judge you by the words you use. When you use the object where the subject is wanted you sound less intelligent than you really are. Why shouldn’t we express the subject and the object clearly? We should we submit to the prevailing decline in the culture?

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  1. What a gorilla. 😉

    Good points, though. Language has meaning. To deny this either with words (How could someone? What is a denial if words are arbitrary?) or in practice (him and me done went and done it) is insanity!

    Thanks for this.

  2. Interesting reflections. There are several things to untangle here.

    Linguists use the categories “standard” and “non-standard” English. Most of what we consider “correct” grammar equates to the “standard.” Everyone acknowledges that people judge you by the words you use. Everyone recognizes that, as a general rule, one advances in society and in the workplace only through standard English. Even a rap singer (or should that be hip-hop artist?) will speak in standard English in a TV interview.

    It’s important to remember, though, that the “standard” of any language does change over time. The fundamental principle of any living language is that speakers, not grammarians, determine the standard. That standard will never devolve into chaos and confusion because of common grace. Yes, there is a “real relation between reality and language” and “a real connection between language and the way things are.”

    Given the connection between reality and language (Are you there, Christian linguists? Please weigh in), there are thousands of ways to express that connection. We call these separate languages. Within each language, there are historical changes, dialects, regional and class differences, jargon, slang, and so forth.

    One of the great glories of the English language is its ability to transform itself over time. For most readers, Old English of the year 1000 is unrecognizable, the Middle English of Chaucer’s day, c. 1400, barely so. Yet language historians will show you that both are English. No other language has been fed from so many diverse streams. Some languages do not need a thesaurus, but it’s natural for synonym-rich English.

    In order to communicate with other people, every speaker must follow the syntax and other elements that make up a language. Even those who speak “non-standard” English and who break grammar rules all over the place must conform to the fundamental structure of the language. Dr. Clark’s sentence above, “The most likely reason that one might say ‘him and me drank a beer’ is that the speaker doesn’t know the difference between the subject and object” is not correct. True, the speaker is probably doesn’t the difference between subjective and objective noun cases, but clearly he is speaking English and not another language, and his listeners understand what he means. He’s not likely to “get ahead,” though. I wouldn’t hire him for any job requiring language skills. He is likely to remain stuck on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder unless he learns standard English. Yet he does know the difference between subject and object. “Him and me” are the subjects of his sentence. They cannot be the objects. English syntax triumphs over his poor grammar. He could even speak nonsense like “The beer drank he and I,” and we would still know what he meant. In that sentence, “he and I” are the objects – they cannot be anything else – but again the case is wrong.

    Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” is a classic example to teach English syntax:

    “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
    All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.”

    You can easily identify the part of speech of every word of those four lines. For example, “mimsy” is a predicative adjective in reverse position, at the beginning of the sentence. The poem is written in English. It cannot be anything else.

    I am not advocating the use of non-standard English or “poor” grammar. I love the language and try to be as “correct” as possible. I cringe when I hear a preacher say, “This Bible verse should be precious to you and I.” It’s sad that the teaching of English grammar has fallen on hard times. Yet the situation is far more complex (and rich) than the contrast between those who don’t talk real good and those who do.

    One final note about “who” and “whom.” Whom (the subject of this sentence!) is disappearing in standard English. Except in very rare cases, as in Dr. Clark’s example, we lose nothing by its disappearance. Even in the most educated company, I’m not going to say, “Whom did he see at the meeting?” That sounds stuffy and pedantic. Not going there. Only the tiniest minority of speakers will note that “Who did you see at the meeting?” is still technically incorrect. They need to get over it. It is not grammarians who are retiring “whom”; it is native English speakers. The language has always changed like this, and it always will. No problem here at all, as far as I can see.

  3. Apologies for late-night, sleep-deprived typos. “True, the speaker is probably doesn’t the difference between subjective and objective noun cases” should read, “True, the speaker probably doesn’t know the difference between subjective and objective noun cases.” The original wording was not a clever use of non-standard English. It was just a botched sentence.

    Question for Dr. Clark: Some blogs allow the writer to revise his original post. What do you think about that? I can see some pluses, but a lot minuses, too.

  4. Here’s a little list that might help categorize grammar “errors.”

    When we hear non-standard English (i.e., grammar errors according to long-established published rules), one of the following may be happening:

    (1) The language is in transition to a new standard. Examples are “who” instead of “whom,” and “their” as a singular pronoun without reference to gender. Hearers/readers may perceive the usage as right or wrong depending on context, education, or social group.

    (2) The “rule” that is broken may be overly restrictive, cumbersome, or the result of a top-down mandate from grammarians and cultural critics. Examples are, not splitting an infinitive and ending a sentence with a proposition. Most speakers will feel that there is little reason for the rule in the first place. Slavish adherence to such a rule has been termed “linguistic hypercorrection.” Recall Churchill’s (possibly apocryphal) statement, “This is a rule up with which I shall not put.”

    (3) The non-standard usage may reflect regional or class differences, or the common, accepted language of a particular group. Not be confused with slang, which is a separate category. Obviously, context is everything here. “I be going” is an example. When, where, and by whom (need whom here!) this usage is appropriate depends on many factors. Linguists have built entire careers studying these language patterns. It’s fascinating and fun, but can get you into big trouble out in the real world. So be careful! Wise is he who knows what language to use, when, and to whom.

    (4) Then there’s the category of real, undisputed errors. “Him and me drank a beer” is an example. It is clearly English, and it is understandable, but it is incorrect. English seems to have permanently fixed pronouns and their cases (the singular “their” being an exception). There are few signs that the language is evolving into something else. Thus, standard English in this case really is “right” and another usage “wrong.” As I’ve said before, this is not because scholarly experts have declared it so, but because English speakers have made it so. Native speakers have pinned the rule to the board, as it were.


    The American Dialect Society votes every year for “Word of the Year.”

    In the year 2000, what word was voted “Word of the Millennium”?

    Search for it. You can find it in ten seconds or less.

  6. Hi Dr. Clark,

    I hope all is well in Escondido.

    The subject-object analysis of the relative pronoun has limited application in English. We need to be mindful of just a little more syntax to make sure we get it right.

    Consider these two sentences:

    [1] Our hope is in Jesus Christ whom we confess is the Son of God.

    [2] Our hope is in Jesus Christ who we confess is the Son of God.

    How do we decide which form of the pronoun is proper? The clause introduced by the relative pronoun is easy enough to identify–it’s all the words that come after *Christ* in the sentence. The clause’s main subject is obviously *we*, and its main verb is *confess*. With the subject clearly identified, we might be tempted to think that the pronoun should be in the objective form since it is part of the main verb’s object (ie it’s syntactically part of what is being confessed). That line of thinking would have us conclude that *whom* is the proper form. It’s not.

    Standard English requires us to use the nominative pronoun in this instance because the pronoun is in the position of a predicate nominative–it’s the compliment of the linking verb *is* in the subordinate clause. This is the same reason that we would prefer *he* over *him* if we were to recast the subordinate clause as this simple sentence: “We confess [that] *he* is the Son of God.”

    Now consider these two sentences:

    [3] Our hope is in Jesus Christ who we confess to be the Son of God.

    [4] Our hope is in Jesus Christ whom we confess to be the Son of God.

    These two sentences are, of course, very similar to the first two examples. The subordinate clause introduced by the relative pronoun has the same subject as the clause above (*we*) and the same main verb (*confess*). If we were to limit ourselves to a subject-object analysis of the clause, we would expect the pronoun to take the same form as the pronoun above because neither the subject nor the object nor the main verb has changed. We would be wrong.

    This form of the sentence requires *whom*, the objective form of the pronoun because the pronoun expresses the subject of a verb in the infinitive case. This is why all native English speakers would instinctively prefer *him* over *he* if the clause were to be recast as this simple sentence: “We confess *him* to be the Son of God.”

    I know very little Latin. Do these same distinctions hold in Latin? They teach this to us in English class in Ohio.

    Go Buckeyes!

    • Hey Rhett!

      We’re well. Hoping that the Huskers learn how to play defense again before Indianapolis (and that they don’t do anything stupid before Indy).

      I stipulate that English has some ambiguities but in the cases that you give:

      [1] Our hope is in Jesus Christ whom we confess is the Son of God.

      [2] Our hope is in Jesus Christ who we confess is the Son of God.

      I should think that [1] is correct and [2] is incorrect. Jesus is not the one confessing. We are. We are subject of the verb. Jesus is the object. He is being confessed. Ergo, whom, the objective/accusative is correct. In another construction we might have said “him we confess.”

  7. Interesting discussion, guys. It goes to show why the distinction between “who” and “whom” is vanishing in most cases. And rightly so, in my opinion. A rule with no real utility, that is difficult to apply with ease, and that rarely improves clarity, will be extinct sooner or later. If speakers believe they don’t need a rule, they will drop it. If they need a new one, they will create it and keep it.

  8. The present discussion isn’t so much about the rules that govern the usage of who and whom. Those are widely accepted and fairly straightforward.

    Strunk and White: “The personal pronouns, as well as the pronoun who, change form as they function as subject or object…When who introduces a subordinate clause, its case depends on its function in that clause.” The Elements of Style (4th ed.) at 11.

    Sir Earnest Gowers: “Who is the subjective case and whom is the objective. The proper use of the two words should present no difficulty.” The Complete Plain Words at 124.

    Bryan Garner: “The distinction to keep in mind is that who acts as the subject of a verb, whereas whom acts as the object of a verb or preposition…the distinction is one to be strictly followed in formal prose.” A Dictionary of Modern English Usage at 932 to 933.

    The problem, as Dr. Clark rightly noted in his post, is that English speakers are not well practiced at distinguishing subjects from objects. The rules of usage aren’t at issue. The present disagreement is about precisely this. I think the pronouns in the first two sentences that I offered earlier are functioning as the subject of the predicate nominative that is nested in a larger subordinate clause in a complex sentence. It’s one sentence with three verbs (ie trust, confess, is).

    We don’t dispute the rules. I simply contend that the pronoun is functioning as the subject of the predicate-nominative clause “who…is the Son of God.” Dr. Clark contends that it is functioning as the object of the clause “him we confess.” The subject-object distinction is essential to clear communication. Getting right the proper usage of who and whom will undoubtedly improve the rest of your writing.

    The third and fourth sentences I provided were a test because they invoke a rare exception to the standard rules because one the verbs is in the infinitive case.

    Contrary to popular belief whom is not fading away. No one is so pedantic as to demand strict adherence to the rules in informal speech, so who because it is more casual and less stilted dominates in speech. In writing, however, the most prevalent mistake is the overuse of whom. The phenomenon is termed hypercorrection.

    I understand that the language is always changing. You seem to presuppose that it is always evolving. That it is always and inevitably becoming more utilitarian and clear. I doubt that’s the case.

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