Whom do you believe?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, blog.editors.ca

First of all: If you can avoid using whom, you should. Any but the most formal texts are better off without it; it’s a foreign word for most users, as evidenced by the general inability of even many language professionals to use it quite correctly all the time.

Sometimes, however, you have to use it. The text demands it. When you do, you may be faced with a choice between two voices in your head – the one who says what you would say without thinking too hard about, and the one who says what you would say if you did think too hard about it. Whom do you believe? More to the point, who do you believe is right?

As a general rule, believe the first one. That’s the one that won’t tell you to use “Whom do you believe is right?”

Is that whom wrong? You bet it is. It’s also an error many people make. Here’s what’s wrong and how to avoid it – and similar misadventures.

The key is this: Always look for a subject for every conjugated verb.

We know (I hope) that whom is for the object and who is for the subject (and, if you don’t use whom, who is for the object too). We also know that when we ask a question or make a relative clause, the subject or object of the verb is at the start of the clause:

She is right.

Who is right?

She tickled him.

Whom did she tickle?

A woman knows her grammar.

She’s a woman who knows her grammar.

She tickles him.

He’s a man whom she tickles.

In each of the above sentences, all subjects are in small caps, all conjugated verbs are underlined, and all objects are in bold. Not all verbs have objects, but they all have subjects. In some sentence a single subject has two verbs – “He baked a cake and iced it nicely.” But unless the verb is an imperative, there has to be an explicit subject. And if that subject is the interrogative or relative pronoun, it has to be who, not whom. So:

Who do you believe is right?

Who is the subject of is. And you is the subject of do (which is the auxiliary for the infinitive believe). If you make who into whom, you don’t have a subject for is.

This throws people off because they see “do you believe” and think, well, it has to have an object. “Whom do you believe” is correct, after all.

But when it’s “…believe is right,” it’s not the same. You say “I believe him” but not “I believe him is right” because the clause “he is right” is the object of believe, and within it he is the subject of is. We get tripped up because the subject and object raise to the same position (I’ve added brackets to separate the clauses):

I believe [she tickled him].

[Who] do I believe [tickled him]?

[Whom] do I believe [she tickled]?

The key, as I said, is to make sure you have a subject for every verb. Or avoid using whom altogether. And when you are faced with those voices, ask yourself: Whom do you believe? And [who] do you believe [is right]?

8 responses to “Whom do you believe?

  1. I hate “whom” almost as much as I hate how there’s no apostrophe in its. Why. Why no apostrophe??? I hate it. It’s stupid and confuses me with all the it and apostrophe rules.

  2. Got a suggestion for you to talk about if you haven’t already: disposal, disposable, dispossessed etc. It’s a waste thing but then it’s also to be at one’s disposal. Perhaps you can talk about that a bit in this world of dispossessed disposables.



  3. Dont ask who the bell tolls for; its you.

    I like it.

  4. Thank you. This made sense to me. Also, I like that you told me to drop “whom,” anyway.

  5. You’re wrong. “Who” is not the subject of “is.” “Whom do you believe” is a noun clause that serves as the subject of the “is.” An interrogative pronoun (and relative pronouns) takes its case from its function within its own clause, not whatever else is going on in a sentence. In this case, the interrogative pronoun who/whom is the object of the verb “do believe” (and not just “do” as you state) and so should be “whom.”

    • For starts, you’re not properly accounting for the do-inversion (“do you believe”), which is a marker of a question. The only question is in the main clause; the sentence is not made of an internal clause asking “Whom do you believe?” embedded in an external clause asking if this person is wrong. That kind of embedding is not coherent in English (we can use a sequential tag question as in “Who is wrong, do you think?” but it’s questionably idiomatic with “do you believe,” is not an embedding in the same way, and in any event is not what you’re attempting here). If the “whom” is not part of the main clause, it’s not functioning as a question word in that clause, and so there has to be a raising of an auxiliary (as, for example, in “Is whom I want to meet coming?”): it would be “Is whom do you believe wrong?” But that’s plainly not coherent. In fact, as a question embedding that clause it would be “Is whom you believe wrong?” or, in the affirmative “you do believe” phrasing (i.e., in implied contradistinction to all the others you don’t believe), “Is whom you do believe wrong?” But that means “There is someone you do believe; is that person wrong?” That’s not what we’re trying to say here. What’s meant here is “Someone is wrong; who is it, in your belief?” The main question is “Who is wrong?” The “do you believe” modifies that. And that is what my analysis accounts for.

      In truth, you can’t coherently make a question clause the subject unless you’re referring to the question qua question, i.e., “Is ‘whom do you believe’ wrong?” Or, if you’re asking a tag question on the model of “They’re wrong?” it would be “‘Whom do you believe‘ is wrong?” Again, though, that’s not what’s being asked here.

      I hope that with some reflection you’ll wrap your head around this. I’ve spent more than twenty years as an editor and I have a graduate degree in linguistics, and so I know that things that seem plain at first glance turn out to misguided on further analysis; I’ve been through it many times myself. It will help if you approach issues with less certainty and more curiosity. You might also try better manners; starting with “You’re wrong” is, shall we say, brusque, and doesn’t improve your position. I know people often have strong feelings about grammar, but they’re not really about grammar. I’ve written more than once about that—start with https://sesquiotic.com/2019/07/06/what-do-we-care-about-really/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s