Thursday, March 28, 2013

Who vs. Whom

Tonight, on VERSUS: this subjective pronoun versus this objective pronoun!

(Anybody else watch AFV? ... Anyone? No? Just me? All right.)

We've got another tricky grammar distinction this week. I bet you've guessed what it's about. That's right, it's who vs. whom.

Let's start out by discussing the difference between a subject and an object. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing that is performing an action. For example, let's look at the sentence "Anabell stole the five dollars that Amos won at the state fair." What is the action being performed in this sentence? Stole. Who stole? Anabell. Therefore, Anabell is the subject of our sentence.

So what's the object? An object is the person or thing that is "receiving" the action, so to speak. So, what is being stolen in this sentence? The five dollars. That's our object.

Now we need to define pronouns. A pronoun is a noun that can stand in for another noun. For example, "After Anabell spent her stolen five dollars, she felt guilty." In this sentence, "she" is replacing "Anabell." It basically just makes it so we don't have to say "Anabell" twice. Handy, right?

So what does this all have to do with who and whom? Well, who is a subjective pronoun. Aha! So that means that we use who when we want to refer to someone performing an action (like a subject) without directly saying their name (like a pronoun). Therefore, we could say, "Anabell, who stole the five dollars, couldn't look Amos in the eye for days."

You probably knew how to use who correctly already. But what about whom? Whom is an objective pronoun. That means it's standing in for someone who is the object of the sentence. For example, "The boy whom Anabell wronged was Amos."

It's not always easy to distinguish the two. Let's practice.
  1. "It was Jim (who/whom) brought the coffee today."
  2. "I learned nothing about the man (who/whom) I saw."
  3. "She is the woman to (who/whom) I owe my life."
What did you get?
  1. Who
  2. Whom
  3. Whom
In 1, Jim is a subject, so we know it can't be whom. In 2, our subject is "I," and "the man" is receiving the action, being seen. That's why it's whom. In 3, our subject is "I" again, and "the woman" is being owed.

If this isn't familiar to you, or whom sounds stilted and weird, it might be because whom is going out of fashion. But now that you know the rules, you can start using it and maybe even help keep it alive!

Once again, if you have a tricky sentence, post it in the comments below and we can help you work it out.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Comprise and Compose . . . Which Is Which?

As editors, we see a lot of confusion between comprise and compose. And, honestly, whenever it comes up, we frequently have to reach for our Chicago manuals for a little grammar refresher. We hope this post will help us all keep the two straight!

Comprise and compose are similar words, both in spelling and meaning. We know they both have some connection to "contain," but the two words aren't interchangeable. Here's a tip for figuring out which is which: think of comprise as "contains" and compose as "is contained in." Let's try some examples:
  • The group comprised 3 girls and 4 boys.
  • Several new laws comprised the bill.
Now let's try to replace "comprise" with the cheat word "contains":
  • The group contains 3 girls and 4 boys.
  • Several new laws contained the bill.
So one of those works, and one of them doesn't. Let's try putting "composed" in the place of "comprised" using the cheat words "is contained in":
  •  Several new laws are contained in the bill.
Ah, much better! "Several new laws compose the bill."

Basically, it's a "parts vs. whole" situation. In your sentence, which one is the part, and which is the whole? I like to think of it this way: the book (whole) comprises its chapters (parts), and the chapters (parts) compose the book (whole).

Now, it can get tricky because you could replace "comprises" with "is composed of" so it would say "the book is composed of its chapters." This is perfectly valid; however, make sure you never use "is comprised of." Think about it: "is contained of" doesn't sound right. That's because it's not! Remember to distinguish which is the "part" and which is the "whole," and make the necessary change.

Finally, let's take a look at what the 16th edition Chicago Manual of Style has to say about comprise vs. compose (5.220):
Use these with care. To comprise is "to be made up of, to include" {the whole comprises the parts}. To compose is "to make up, to form the substance of something" {the parts compose the whole}. The phrase comprised of, though increasingly common, is poor usage. Instead, use composed of, consisting of, or made up of.
So there you have it! If you have any problematic phrases you want to throw our way, list them in the comments and we'll help you out.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


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