A Simple Trick for Remembering When To Use Who vs. Whom

g-stockstudio/iStock via Getty Images
g-stockstudio/iStock via Getty Images

In casual messages with friends or water cooler conversations with colleagues, it might not seem particularly important to use perfect grammar—and saying whom can sometimes make an exchange seem formal in a way that doesn’t match the situation. But there are still plenty of instances when perfect grammar is necessary, like emails to the CEO of your company, published works, or telephone talks with your persnickety relatives.

For those times, Lifehacker has a nifty mnemonic device to help you remember when to use who vs. whom. In short, mentally swap out the who or whom in your sentence with he or him. If he sounds right, you should use who. If him is the obvious winner, go with whom.

This works because who and he are both subjective pronouns; that is, you use them to refer to the subject of the sentence. In “Who let the dogs out?”, the subject of the question is the person letting the dogs out. If you replace who with he there, you get an equally intelligible sentence: “He let the dogs out.” Neither whom nor him would work, because they’re both objective pronouns—you substitute them for the noun that receives the action of the sentence. Since you wouldn’t say “Him let the dogs out,” you shouldn’t say “Whom let the dogs out.”

In the sentence “Whom will you invite to dinner?”, you is the subject, and the person you invites to dinner is the object. Just like in the first example, it’s easier to discern whether he or him works if you rephrase the question as a statement. “You will invite him to dinner” sounds fine (if a little bossy), while “You will invite he to dinner” frankly sounds hilarious.

You can definitely substitute who and whom with other pronoun combinations like she and her or they and them if you’d rather, but the reason he and him work so well is because they sound similar to who and whom—the only aural differences are the vowels.

As a consolation prize for the hassle of having to think about who vs. whom, here’s a grammar rule you probably use correctly every day without even realizing it.

[h/t Lifehacker]

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13 Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should Be Using

Damon Amato
Damon Amato

Because sometimes periods, commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, hyphens, apostrophes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks, brackets, parentheses, braces, and ellipses won't do, here are a few other punctuation marks to work into your everyday communications.

1. Interrobang

Advertising executive Martin Speckter came up with the interrobang in 1962.Damon Amato

You probably already know the interrobang, thanks to its excellent moniker and popularity (You did what!? or You don't read Mental Floss?!). Though the combination exclamation point and question mark can be replaced by using one of each, they can also be combined into a single glyph. The interrobang was invented by advertising executive Martin Speckter in 1962; according to his obituary in The New York Times the interrobang was “said to be the typographical equivalent of a grimace or a shrug of the shoulders. It applied solely to the rhetorical, Mr. Speckter said, when a writer wished to convey incredulity.” The name is derived from the Latin word interrogatio, which means “questioning,” and bang—how printers refer to the exclamation mark.

2. Percontation Point or Rhetorical Question Mark

Damon Amato

The backward question mark was proposed by printer Henry Denham in the 16th century as an end to a rhetorical question. According to Lynne Truss in the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, “it didn’t catch on.”

3. Irony Mark

Alcanter de Brahm's irony mark.Damon Amato

According to Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters, it was British philosopher John Wilkins who first suggested an irony mark, which he thought should be an inverted exclamation point.

Next came Alcanter de Brahm, who introduced his own irony mark (above)—which de Brahm said took “the form of a whip”— in the 19th century. Then, in 1966, French author Hervé Bazin proposed his irony mark, which looks a bit like an exclamation point with a lowercase U through the middle [PDF], in his book, Plumons l’Oiseau, along with five other pieces of punctuation.

4. Love Point

Hervé Bazin's love point.Damon Amato

Among Bazin's proposed new punctuation marks was the love point. It was composed of two mirrored question marks that formed a heart and shared a point. The intended use, of course, was to denote a statement of affection or love, as in "Happy anniversary [love point]" or "I have warm fuzzies [love point]."

5. Acclamation Point

Hervé Bazin's acclamation point.Damon Amato

Bazin described this mark as "the stylistic representation of those two little flags that float above the tour bus when a president comes to town." Acclamation is a "demonstration of goodwill or welcome," so you could use it to say "I'm so happy to see you [acclamation point]" or "Viva Las Vegas [acclamation point]."

6. Certitude Point

Hervé Bazin's certitude point.Damon Amato

Need to say something with unwavering conviction? End your declaration with the certitude point, another of Bazin's designs, which is an exclamation point with a line through it. As Phil Jamieson writes at Proofread Now’s GrammerPhile blog, “This punctuation would best be used instead of writing in all caps.”

7. Doubt Point

Hervé Bazin's doubt mark.Damon Amato

Another Bazin creation, the doubt point—which looks a little like a cross between the letter Z and a question mark—is the opposite of the certitude point, and thus is used to end a sentence with a note of skepticism.

8. Authority Point

Hervé Bazin's authority point.Damon Amato

Bazin's authority point "shades your sentence" with a note of expertise, "like a parasol over a sultan." (“Well, I was there and that's what happened [authority point].”) Likewise, it's also used to indicate an order or advice that should be taken seriously, as it comes from a voice of authority.

Unfortunately, as Houston writes at the BBC, “Bazin’s creations were doomed to fail from the start. Though his new symbols looked familiar, crucially, they were impossible to type on a typewriter. The author himself never used them after Plumons l’Oiseau and the book’s playful tone discouraged other writers from taking them up too, so that today the love point, irony point, and the rest are little more than curiosities.”

9. SarcMark

The SarcMark (short for "sarcasm mark") looks like a swirl with a dot in the middle. According to its website, “Its creator, Douglas Sak, was writing an email to a friend and was attempting to be sarcastic. It occurred to him that the English language, and perhaps other languages, lacked a punctuation mark to denote sarcasm.” The SarcMark was born—and trademarked—and it debuted in 2010. While the SarcMark hasn't seen widespread use, Saks markets it as "the official, easy-to-use punctuation mark to emphasize a sarcastic phrase, sentence or message." Because half the fun of sarcasm is pointing it out [SarcMark].

10. Snark Mark

You don't need a special font or keyboard to make the SnarkMark.Damon Amato

This, like the SarcMark, is used to indicate that a sentence should be understood beyond the literal meaning. Unlike the SarcMark, however, this one is copyright-free and easy to type: It's just a period followed by a tilde. It was created by typographer Choz Cunningham in 2007.

11. Asterism

We can think of a few situations in which the asterism would be useful.Damon Amato

According to Houston, this triangular trio of asterisks was “named for a constellation of stars and used as late as the 1850s to indicate ‘a note of considerable length, which has no reference.’”

12. And 13. Exclamation Comma and Question Comma

The exclamation comma and the question comma should be used "within a written sentence between words as a comma, but with more feeling or inquisitiveness."Damon Amato

According to the Huffington Post, Leonard Storch, Ernst van Haagen, and Sigmund Silber created both the exclamation comma and the question comma—an exclamation mark with a comma for a bottom point, and a question mark with a comma for a point, respectively—in 1992. The patent for the marks (which expired in 1995) reads:

“Using two new punctuation marks, the question comma and the exclamation comma … inquisitiveness and exclamation may be expressed within a written sentence structure, so that thoughts may be more easily and clearly conveyed to readers. The new punctuation marks are for use within a written sentence between words as a comma, but with more feeling or inquisitiveness. This affords an author greater choice of method of punctuating, e.g., to reflect spoken language more closely. Moreover, the new punctuation fits rather neatly into the scheme of things, simply filling a gap, with a little or no explanation needed.”

The patent closes with an imagining of what a reader might “silently remark” when seeing the marks for the first time: “Clever [exclamation comma] funny I never saw one of those before.”

This story has been updated for 2020.