Tag Archives: grammar

Who v. Whom

This is one of the elements of English grammar that has always thrown me. I usually say “Who” regardless, because I think constructions like “To whom have you been speaking” sound ridiculous.

But now my Oxford Seminar course has given me a great test, so at least I’ll know if I’m incorrect, and then I can just be brazen about it.

While whom is sometimes disregarded as antiquated British English, it is actually the object case for the pronoun who. Although native English speakers often use who for both the subject and object cases of the pronoun, this is not strictly correct.

Consider the following question:

Who opened the door? or Whom opened the door?

An appropriate response to the question is “He opened the door.” As a subject-case pronoun was used in the response, the question should be posed “Who opened the door?”.

So, did you get that?

If I have a question like “Who opened the door?”, to test my “who/whom” choice, I would think about the answer. In this case “Him opened the door” would not work. The correct statement would be “He opened the door.”

He –> Who

Him –> Whom (notice that “m” ending)

So here’s a test:

Who/Whom did I give my letter to?

Hint: The answer is “her.” I gave my letter to her. So “Whom” would be correct for my question—although I would never say this outside of an English class because it sounds ridiculous to my commoner’s ear.

“To whom did I give the letter?”

Nope, I’m still going to say: Who did I give the letter to?

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition!

I’m taking the Oxford Seminar TEFL course, and yesterday I learned about the proper use of prepositions.

Some grammar sticklers have cat fits when you end a sentence with a preposition, but I’ve noticed that there are just times when the language becomes stilted and archaic not to do so.

Enter the phrasal verb. This little guy is causing all the trouble. He is at the root of many a bad argument between editors and writers, and not a few hurt feelings!

My training manual explains:

In English grammar, a phrasal verb is a group of words that consists of a verb plus an adverbial or prepositional participle. If you eliminate any component of the phrasal verb, you cannot interpret the intended meaning.

I like their examples too:

Most bullies back down if confronted. (This works!)
Most bullies back. (This does not work.)
Most bullies down. (This does not work.)
Must bullies back down. (Yep, there’s that preposition, and it works!)

There are many, many, many phrasal verbs in English.

Here are a few:

act up
ask out
bring up
back off
check out
chip in
drop off
drop out
eat out
egg on
face up to
find out
give up
grow up

You get the idea. And I bet you can think of many instances where we would use these at the end of our sentences.

The only time it is incorrect to use a preposition at the end of your sentence is when you leave the thought unfinished.

Their example is:

“She is going to come with.”

This is incorrect because the thought has been left unfinished.

When I was growing up in Texas, I always heard constructions like this:

Where are you going to be at?

Here the “at” is unnecessary. The correct version is: “Where are you going to be?”

But “Your raft is on fire; you should jump off!” is perfectly acceptable.

Oxford Seminars advises:

If you’re in doubt about whether or not a sentence is grammatically correct with a preposition at the end, try to rewrite the sentence and change the preposition. If the result is grammatically incorrect or is incomprehensible, then it is generally acceptable to revert to your original phrasing and end the sentence with a preposition.


Strunk and White

The book was originally written in 1919 by Professor William Strunk Jr. and was self-published by the author. It was professionally published in 1935, then again in 1957, 1972, and 2000. It’s fair to say this book has stood the test of time.

Strunk and White Elements of Style consists of:

  • 11 Rules of Usage
  • 11 Principles of Composition
  • 21 Style Guidelines
  • Commonly Misused Words and Expressions
  • Glossary

From the introduction:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. (page xvi)

Professor Strunk, although one of the most inflexible and choosy of men, was quick to acknowledge the fallacy of inflexibility and the danger of doctrine. (page xvii)


Where I work we argue a bit about how relevant Strunk and White remains, with some taking the position of fully committed fans and other wanting more freedom (translate wanting to be lazy and not understand/follow the rules of grammar or of good writing style.) I guess you can figure out where I fall on this controversy.

[Written on September 2016: I’m very sorry to do this. I realize this was a popular post and provides a comprehensive summary of the book. However, it occurs to me that my review may have gone too far. I have have revealed too much of the book and instead of mere commenting on the book and giving examples, I gave far too many examples and very few comments. For this reason, today I have chosen to delete much of this post. I recommend that you buy the book. It is a great resource for any writer.]



6 + 1 Writing Traits: Word Choice

word choice matters

<Do I sense your anger, or do I sense my own?>

Just like all the other traits, word choice is important.

So the questions above. Do they make sense? There’s missing context right? So while word choice may not give you context, the specific words you choose are still important.

My pet peeve is when people don’t use the correct word for what they are talking about. They use some lazy word like “thing.” Here’s an example:

“Hey Word Wabbit, I’ve got this thing around six, could you work on that thing we were talking about, you know, with what’s-her-name, and then tell me, you know, how you’re feeling about it tomorrow.”

Too much of this and I’m driven up the wall. Seriously. We all do it. I’m guilty of it too, but in professional writing (as opposed to spoken word), there’s no place for laziness. We need to say exactly what we mean. Don’t ask the reader to do any work.

Word Choice is the use of rich, colorful, precise language that communicates not just in a functional way, but in a way that moves and enlightens the reader. In good descriptive writing, strong word choice clarifies and expands ideas. In persuasive writing, careful word choice moves the reader to a new vision of things. Strong word choice is characterized not so much as exceptional vocabulary that impresses the reader, but more by the skill to use everyday words well [emphasis is mine].
—Source: random piece of paper @ 2004 from a graduate course that I recently retrieved from the floor of my home-office

People will tell you not to use adverbs. (Examples: quickly, heatedly, slowly, loudly, mercilessly, etc.) Here’s why. If you need to tack on a word to help convey the meaning of your verb, your verb isn’t strong enough. Try looking for another verb.

People will say: use active verbs. (The terminology I was taught was “action” verbs.) This means, when possible, try to not use the “to be” verb. People will call this the “Be” verb. I like to say “to be” because I’m in the habit of referring to the verb by its infinitive, which includes the “to.” (To buy, to walk, to talk, to eat, to sit, to read, to learn, etc.)

It’s good to know when your “to” is part of an infinitive or is acting as a preposition.

Here’s an example:
I went to the store to buy some peppers.

  • In the sentence above, the first “to” is a preposition. Its object is “store.”
  • The second “to” is part of the verb infinitive “to buy.” It is not a preposition and has no object.

But back to the “to be” verb. This is an irregular verb in English, so if you want to use stronger “action” verbs, it’s good to know what you’re thinking about avoiding. (I’m not telling you to avoid the “to be” verb. I’m just saying that sometimes, maybe often, there is a better, more exact verb you could use instead.)

To Be (present tense) To Be (simple past tense)
I am I was
You (singular) are You (singular) were
He/She/It is He/She/It was
We are We were
You (plural) are You (plural) were
They are They were

People will also tell you not to use the “to be” verb because it is a sign that you are using passive voice. This is not true! You might be using passive voice, but you are not necessarily using passive voice when you use the “to be” verb!!!


There’s passive voice and there’s active voice. When you’re using passive voice, you know because you’ve been able to get your message across without implicating anyone:

  • Mistakes were made. (Who made them? Gee, I dunno. This must be in passive voice. Oh, if only the writer had been more specific. Fire the writers!!!!)
  • Harold made mistakes. (Now we’re getting somewhere. This is in active voice. Fire Harold!!!!)

Notice that in the first example the word “were” appears. This is a form of the “to be” verb. And in this instance, we have passive voice. But, as I said, a form of the “to be” verb does not always indicate passive voice:

The girls were intelligent.

Here, “were” is a perfectly legitimate linking verb. It links the subject “The girls” with the predicate adjective “intelligent.

People will tell me: This verb isn’t active enough.

Ahhhhhh! (Fire the English teacher!)

Ok, this is like being a little bit pregnant. Either you are or you aren’t. Either you have an “action” verb or you do not. Don’t confuse action verbs with “active and passive voice.”

  1. So, do they mean that the verb isn’t “specific” enough?
  2. Are they looking for “movement“? (The verb isn’t active enough?)
  3. Or, do they simply have the “to be” verb phobia that seems to be going around?

Well, those are my main issues when it comes to word choice. The important thing is to use the most accurate word to represent what you’re talking about. Call things by their names. Don’t dumb things down for your reader. Give your reader some credit. On the other hand, remember your audience. If your audience isn’t highly technical, don’t burden your reader with technical jargon.

This can be a dilemma and create a tug-of-war between using the “correct” word and using the word that your reader will understand. I would err on the side of greater clarity because if I don’t call things by their correct names, the reader (who might be more knowledgeable than I predicted) might think I don’t know what I’m talking about. Then I lose credibility. And the whole thing is shot. So use the correct word, and provide a brief explanation if you think you need to.

Assessing Word Choice

  • Words are specific, precise, and appropriate. (Words evoke images. You see what’s going on.)
  • Powerful words provide energy. (You have a feeling of action, activity.)
  • Words are not abstract, cliché, or include jargon.