Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part III. Grammar Rules Every Writer Needs to Know and Follow

Chapter 17. Woe Is Me: Dealing With I/Me, Who/Whom, and That/Which/Who

I grouped these issues into one lesson because you’ll find some similarities in what’s actually causing the problem and how to fix it. Even though each of these could be a lesson in themselves, I felt that bringing them together in one place would be easier for you.

Before we jump into sorting through I/me and who/whom, we need to have a refresher about subjects and objects and passive voice vs. active voice.

Back in the chapter on commas, we talked about the subject of a sentence. We also talked about how complete sentences need to contain a subject and a predicate.

Now we’re going to talk about the verbs in a sentence and how verbs have both a subject and an object. (Remember that the verb is just part of the predicate.)

The subject of a verb, just like the subject of a sentence, is always going to be a noun (person, place, thing, or state of being) or pronoun (a word, like he or it, that stands in for a noun).

When it comes to the subject and object of a verb, the subject is the one taking on or doing the action of the verb.

In an active sentence, the subject of the verb does the action. In a passive sentence, the subject of the verb takes on an action.

Below I’ve underlined the verb and placed the subject in bold. Both of these are in the active voice.

I love my husband.

My cat licks her fur.

The object of the verb is the person or thing having the action done to them. Below I’ve identified these in our examples in italics.

I love my husband.

My cat licks her fur.

Now I’m going to write our above examples in the passive voice and highlight the different parts the same way as above (subject in bold, verb underlined, and object in italics) so you can see what happens.

My husband is loved by me.

My cat’s fur is licked by my cat.

You might remember that we call these sentences passive because the subjects of the verbs are lazy. They’re not doing anything. They’re taking on the verb, having something done to them.

Whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, we want to write in the active voice as much as possible.

But here are two things I want you to remember.

A sentence using a to be verb isn’t necessarily passive.

I’ve underlined the to be construction in the following example.

Active: I am holding my husband’s hand.

Passive: My husband’s hand is held by me.

This sentence uses a weak verb, but it can have both a passive and an active form without removing the to be construction.

In English, the subject of the sentence is largely determined by its position relative to the verb.

The subject comes before the verb in most cases.

Exception #1 – Questions

Not all questions will invert the natural order, but some will.

Are neither my wishes nor my goals important?

If you’re confused by the subject and object in a question, turn it into an answer to the question.

No, your wishes and your goals aren’t important.

The compound subject is wishes and goals. (And if your spouse ever says this to you, you’ll be headed for counseling.)

Exception #2 – Sentences opening with phrases such as there are or it is

There is nothing to be gained from lying.

The subject is nothing. You could reword the sentence as Nothing is gained from lying.

Here are the copies you asked for.

The subject is copies. You could reword the sentence as The copies you asked for are here.

Exception #3 – When you say what was done before you say who did it

Walking around the yard were two dogs.

Walking can’t be the subject of the sentence because it’s not a noun or a pronoun.

The subject is dogs.

Two dogs were walking around the yard.

I know that was a lot to take in, but now I can explain how we decide whether to use I or me and who or whom.

I is used as the subject. Me is used as the object.

Who is used as the subject. Whom is used as the object.

It sounds easy when parsed down that way, but it can be a little trickier in execution in certain situations, so let me walk you through it.

I/ME

There are two tricky cases when it comes to figuring out whether to use I or me.

The first is when you have a compound subject/object.

Which do you think is correct?

A - She loves you and I equally.

B - She loves you and me equally.

Your instinct is likely to say A is correct because we’ve been somehow trained to think that I is the cultured choice. But the correct answer is B.

Look what happens when we do this…

A – She loves you and I equally.

B – She loves you and me equally.

You’d never dream of saying “She loves I” (at least not if you want anyone to understand you) so you shouldn’t say “She loves you and I.”

The second is following a preposition.

Prepositions are position words (e.g., afteratbeforebetweenbyforfrominlikeontowardwith).

We have the same knee-jerk reaction following a preposition as we do with a compound object following a verb. We want to put an I.

Guess again.

A – The odds were against you and I.

B – The odds were against you and me.

You should know how to figure this out now.

A – The odds were against you and I.

B – The odds were against you and me.

IT IS I – AN EXCEPTION TO THE RULE

Technically speaking, when a pronoun follows a to be verb, it should act as a subject. Consequently, generations were taught to say “It is I” and “This is she.”

And while “It is I” is still correct, “It’s me” is now common parlance and, unless you’re trying to characterize an English teacher, someone from a past era of history, etc., you’ll want to use “It’s me,” not “It is I,” in your fiction.

WHO/WHOM

Who is used as a subject. Whom is used as an object.

A little trick to remember this is that you use who in the same place you would use he or they. You use whom in the same place you would use him or them. Notice how all three words in the second sentence end in m.

Unfortunately, it can sometimes still be tricky to figure out which one you need. Here’s how to solve the problem.

When who/whom appears in a question

Did I tell you who/whom I saw at the store?

All you have to do for this is frame it as an answer.

I saw him at the store.

Therefore…

Did I tell you whom I saw at the store?

When who/whom appears buried in other words

We only invited guests to the party who/whom we thought would have fun.

You could rearrange the words the same way you did with a question…

We thought they would have fun.

But it’s easier to just cut the fluff around the clause (subject + predicate clasped together) in a question.

We only invited guests to the party who/whom we thought would have fun.

That makes it clear that the clause has who/whom as the subject.

Who would have fun.

Therefore…

We only invited guests to the party who we thought would have fun.

I’ll show you another one.

Bob wouldn’t tell his girlfriend who/whom he invited to his poker game.

Aside from the fact that Bob probably won’t have a girlfriend much longer, we can also remove the words around the clause in question…

Bob wouldn’t tell his girlfriend who/whom he invited to his poker game.

When you cut away everything else like this, you can see that who/whom isn’t doing the inviting. He did the inviting. Who/whom is the one being invited.

Therefore…

Bob wouldn’t tell his girlfriend whom he invited to his poker game.

DOES IT MATTER WHETHER YOU USE WHO OR WHOM?

Sometimes it does, but not usually. If you’re writing a blog post, you can feel safe using who, regardless of whether it’s the subject or the object. The same thing goes for fiction.

With two qualifications.

If you use whom, you need to make sure you’re using it correctly. (In other words, don’t put whom where who actually belongs.)

Knowing the difference between who and whom gives you a way to set apart the dialogue of a well-educated or pretentious character from an average Joe. Use it well.

THAT/WHICH/WHO

We’re in the home stretch of the chapter now, and this part is much easier.

When should we use that and when should we use who?

Tim is the man who/that my cousin married.

The answer is simpler than you might think.

A person can technically be a who or a that, but the preference is to always refer to human beings as who.

A thing is always a that.

The lines turn gray when you’re talking about animals, but the general guideline is that an animal is a that if it’s unnamed and a who if its named or directly connected to a person (e.g., my cat whomy dog who).

There’s the dog that works with the police by sniffing out bombs.

Luna is a dog who loves her food.

When should we use that and when should we use which?

Use which if the clause is non-restrictive and that if the clause is restrictive.

I know—time for some more definitions. Once you get the hang of these, I promise you can forget all the terms because you’ll know how to apply these concepts, and that’s all that really matters.

clause includes both a subject and a predicate.

To help you remember that a clause requires both a subject and a predicate, think about clasping your hands together. Clause = clasp.

A clause can be either dependent or independent, but you’ll only run into the that/which conundrum in dependent clauses.(Remember, dependent clauses are ones that can’t stand alone as a sentence.)

Dependent clauses come in two types.

non-restrictive clause is one that the sentence doesn’t need to make sense. It merely provides additional information about a subject that’s already been clearly identified. The non-restrictive clause in the sentence below is underlined and bolded.

My cat, who is black and wears a red collar, likes to sleep on the window ledge.

You can remove the underlined portion without changing the meaning of the sentence and without it being any less clear.

My cat likes to sleep on the window ledge.

restrictive clause is one the sentence needs. It won’t make sense or won’t say the same thing without it. It restricts the meaning in some sense. The restrictive clause in the sentence below is underlined.

The cat that lives with my neighborlikes to catch birds in my yard.

Look what happens when you remove the restrictive clause.

The cat likes to catch birds in my yard.

What cat?

Look at another example.

The spider that spins those webs is poisonous.

Try taking the restrictive clause out and see how ambiguous the sentence becomes.

The spider is poisonous.

If you’re me, you’re asking “Which spider?” in a panicky voice and are looking for the heaviest possible object to throw at it. Those that clauses can be mighty important.

Now let’s look at how this applies to choosing between that and which.

Tomatoes, which come in red and green varieties, are actually fruits, not vegetables.

This is non-restrictive—we could remove it and the subject would still be clear, so we use which. Now look what happens in a restrictive clause where we need that element to make sense.

The tomato that you threw at me left a bruise on my cheek.

Because it’s restrictive, we need to use that.

If you’re British or Australian, the rules might be slightly different. For this one, I recommend that you either look at some of the traditionally published books on your shelf or check out a grammar guide written specifically for your country.