Who/whom howler

The dean of the law school of the National University of Singapore recently wrote an article in the Straits Times for students who want to go to university. But there was a problem with the headline: Students considering university education should ask themselves whom, not what they want to be.

The punctuation is wrong. There should be a comma after “what”.  The two words, “not what”, are in parenthesis. Drop those two words and it will still be a complete sentence: “Students considering university education should ask themselves whom they want to be.”

But the sentence will still have to be corrected. The pronoun here should be “who”, not “whom”.

So the headline should have been; Students considering university education should ask themselves who, not what, they want to be.

Why should it be “who”, not “whom”?

Let me answer with a question.

Do you say, “Who do you think you are?”, or “Whom do you think you are?”

The same principle applies here. The students are being asked something  about themselves, not about others. So they have to answer in the first person. And the pronoun that usually follows “I” is “who”, not “whom”. Old-timers will remember the song, I Who Have Nothing, sung by Tom Jones, Ben E. King, and Shirley Bassey.

Not there is anything grammatically wrong with a sentence like this: “I, whom the bosses dislike, am a victim of office politics.” But it’s awkward. That’s not how people speak or write. It’s not English.

There is a difference between grammar and usage. And it’s best to go by usage. Because you will be more easily understood when you are speaking and writing like others – and not raising eyebrows.

There is a reason I am pointing to this difference between grammar and usage. If you read the Straits Times article, you will come across this sentence: “And she is cleverer than they.” it is grammatically correct. But it is all right to say,”She is cleverer than them.”

Michael Swan in his book, Practical English Usage, writes:

After as and than, object forms are generally used in an informal style.

My sister’s nearly as tall as me.

I can run faster than her,

In a more formal style, subject forms are used, usually followed by verbs.

My sister’s nearly as tall as I am.

I can run faster than she can.

I prefer the informal style and would rather write, “She is cleverer than them.” Not grammar, but English.

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