My Favorite Punctuation Mark Is the Catastrophe ‘Cause No Matter Where I Put It, It’s Always in the Right Place

January 8, 2010

I am agog. Nay, I am flabbergasted and thunderstruck. I actually heard the words who and whom used correctly on a television promo for The Secret Life of the American Teenager. It happened on January 2, 2010. I have no idea who said it because I wasn’t paying attention. She—I’m pretty sure it was a she—said, “You can never tell who will fall in love with whom.”

Such correctness is rare. The who/whom conundrum is one that students often ask me about, although in everyday conversation you probably don’t need to worry about which one to use because most people won’t know the difference and those who are bothered by such mistakes should know better than to say anything to you unless of course you are in some kind of classroom situation where this sort of thing matters.

For example, I am a former high school English teacher and although you might think that I would take pleasure in correcting other people’s grammatical errors, you would be wrong. There is no joy to be found in undangling (the computer tells me that this not a word and I’d like to know why not since it certainly should be) other people’s participles since if I do, I am likely to be drawn into conversations like the one that follows.

Basically, the who/whom difference is this: use the pronoun who when it’s the subject of a sentence and the pronoun whom when it’s an object as in a prepositional phrase. Who is a subjective pronoun, meaning that it is used as a subject (which combines with a verb, necessary to make a complete sentence). Whom is an objective pronoun and gets used when it is the object of a prepositional phrase and in other instances as well. A preposition—words like by, over, under, before, and oh, so many more—combines with a noun or pronoun to make a prepositional phrase. Oh, my.

Yes indeedy, as you can probably imagine, it’s much more complicated than this, fraught with words like “linking verb complements” and “infinitives” and “direct objects.” I would explain it all to you, except that they do it so much better at http://www.dummies.com. Just search for “who/whom.”

Meanwhile, you can read this: Okay now, confess. Who gave the swine flu to whom? Tell me quick! Who is it? Was it you? To whom did you give it? Speak up. Whom did you give the swine flu to? Whom should I give this medicine to? What? It wasn’t you? Well, then, who was given the swine flu by whom? Who knows and who can tell me? I am determined to find the person to whom I must deliver these pills, the person who has the swine flu.

Egad. I am delighted that I did not set out to write blogs about this kind of stuff. I would have long ago quit. This is exactly why I am always vague at parties about what my college major (English) was or that I once taught high school English.

I overuse the double dash, known as an em dash, to set off phrases. I love it. I can’t write without it. How about you? What’s your favorite—or most overused—punctuation mark?

An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes.
• F. Scott Fitzgerald


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