Three grating grammatical glitches

Sooner or later, everybody slips up in the grammar department. But certain glitches raise their scruffy heads more often than others. Here’s a guide to navigating some of the most common danger zones.

Who and whom

Keeping these two straight can be like telling two zebras apart. Here goes:

“Who” doesn't get misused very often. Examples: Who’s there? Who did it?

“Whom” usually causes little trouble as an indirect object, or object of a preposition. Examples: To whom did you give the Gophers tickets? and “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.”

But as a direct object, “whom” sounds stuffy. Would you say, “Of the Beatles, whom did you like best?” or “Whom do you think you spotted last night?” And would you want to change an old hit song title to “Whom Do You Love?”

English is a Germanic language, but unlike modern German, it lacks a specific form of “who” for direct objects. Instead, we’re stuck with “whom” for all objective cases. Perhaps—at least in informal speech—we could tacitly acknowledge this state of affairs and give ourselves permission to say “who” wherever “whom” would make us cringe.  

One bright note: Usages like “Give the prize to whoever scored the most points” are correct—no need to switch to “whomever.” That’s because a phrase—in this case, “whoever scored the most points”—is the indirect object.

What/all is going on?

“What” and”all” are singular until proven plural—and often party to the mistake of letting predicates, not subjects, govern the verb. Here are some correct usages of “what”:

“What I’d most like to find on my doorstep is 20 boxes of Girl Scout thin mints.”

“What are the odds?” (the subject is “the odds.”)

But today, constructions like “what is really important are the rules” are commonplace. In cases like these, the predicate—“the rules”—is allowed to govern the verb. Also, “what” starts out singular—“what is”—but then switches to the plural “are.” It can’t be both. The sentence should read, “What is really important is the rules.”

When “all” means “everything,” which is singular, it is also singular: “All is well.” But all is not well with sentences like “All I found in the attic were some old yearbooks.” No; all you found was your yearbooks.

When in doubt, cut your sentence off at the verb and listen. For instance, “All I found were … ” should give you pause. But “All the things I found were …” sounds right. So does “All the stuff I found was … ”  

“All” is, of course, plural when it means all people or all things, as in “all are welcome.”

Subjunctive mood

The subjunctive isn’t a tense, but a shift in some verb forms when possibilities, desires, or required actions are intended. Every day we use it effortlessly in speech, but in writing we often forget.

For example, a recent news article read: “ … the proposals would … mandate that ballots are printed in more languages …” Wrong. This expresses not a present situation but an imperative. It needs the subjunctive: “ The proposals would … mandate that ballots be printed in more languages …”

Similarly, usages like “It’s important that you are in the meeting tomorrow” require the subjunctive. Without thinking, we say it right: “It’s important that you be in the meeting tomorrow.” Here are some phrases that contrast the simple present tense with the subjunctive: He chooses wisely—it’s crucial that he choose wisely; She has the right tools—it’s important that she have the right tools; She takes the bus—we suggested that she take the bus.

Happy navigating.