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For Whom the Knock Knock Joke Tolls

“Knock knock”

“Who’s there?”


“To who?”

“To WHOM!!!”  (To be said in an exasperated manner.)

Or, as I originally told this, in telling it to my co-worker, Mar: “Knock knock” … “who’s there”? “Who” … “who who”? “Uhhhh….” Telling jokes has never been one of my talents.

The point of this inane joke is that the word “whom” is seldom understood by many people, myself included – and I majored in English in college!  I am confident, however, that there are many other English majors out there who don’t really understand the correct usage of the word – not to mention all the poor people out there trying to learn our bizarre language, like the aforementioned Mar, who’s Dutch (but who is fluent in English). I think I understand (mostly, kinda) the rules of “whom,” but, like many people, I stick to the basics so that I don’t get caught making a grammatical error in print: “To whom it may concern,” “to whom do I owe the pleasure,” etc. If I’m not 100 percent sure of the usage, I avoid the word by rephrasing the sentence – an old trick.

I should amend the above statement: I thought I understood the rules until I read the relevant text in the Chicago Manual of Style, which I have included below, which reads to me like calculus, or a technical forum one is forced to read when one’s email is not behaving as it should. The lesson: I learn from examples. (Pretty much exclusively!)

It’s a bit funny to me that in Spanish class when I was a kid we learned the names of all the tenses, but (and perhaps I was asleep in English class that year) I don’t recall ever learning the names of the various tenses I use every day in English, and I tend to black out for a few seconds when I hear words like “predicate nominatives” (see extract below). It’s quite possible I did learn about predicate nominatives, but that I have since purged it from my memory in order to make room for more important things, like remembering the chronological order of Pink Floyd’s albums. Approximately 23 percent of my brain is taken up by Ken Ken puzzles alone. My courses in college concerned themselves with learning about literature, and the wonderful things that can be done with the written word, in any language, thus leaving me wondering why it is referred to as an English degree.

The question is, when does using the word “whom” (in spoken English) make the speaker sound like Professor Henry Higgins? Imagine answering the phone: “This is Bill. To whom am I speaking?” But that’s a topic for another time: why do even educated people shy from sounding “too educated” (i.e. Henry Higgins-like) in our speech? Is this just something we do in English? I have the feeling not.

Now to do a Ken Ken puzzle! (Just kidding – never at work. Never.)


From the Chicago Manual of Style:

5.63 “Who” versus “whom”

Who and whoever are the nominative forms, used as subjects {Whoever said that?} or predicate nominatives {It was who?}. Whom and whomever are the objective forms, used as the object of a verb {You called whom?} or a preposition {To whom are you referring?}. Three problems arise with determining the correct case. First, because the words are so often found in the inverted syntax of an interrogative sentence, their true function in the sentence can be hard to see unless one sorts the words into standard subject–verb–object syntax. In this example, sorting the syntax into “I should say who is calling” makes the case easier to determine:

WRONG: Whom should I say is calling?

RIGHT: Who should I say is calling?


Second, determining the proper case can be confusing when the pronoun serves a function (say, nominative) in a clause that itself serves a different function (say, objective) in the main sentence. It is the pronoun’s function in its clause that determines its case. In the first example below, the entire clause whoever will listen is the object of the preposition to. But in the clause itself, whoever serves as the subject, and that function determines its case. Similarly, in the second sentence whomever is the object of choose in the clause, so it must be in the objective case even though the clause itself serves as the subject of the sentence.

WRONG: I’ll talk to whomever will listen.

RIGHT: I’ll talk to whoever will listen.
WRONG: Whoever you choose will suit me.
RIGHT: Whomever you choose will suit me.


As the second example above shows, a further distraction can arise when the who clause contains a nested clause, typically of attribution or identification (here, you choose).


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