Using Relative Pronouns Correctly and Effectively
A recent newsletter for authors published by a prominent press emphasised the importance of an author knowing as much as possible about his or her readers. The advice is sound, but the language in which it was expressed boasted a glaring grammatical error: ‘How do you know whom your average reader is?’ Some of you will be able to identify the problem immediately and with precision, but others, I suspect, will recognise that there is a mistake, yet not be certain exactly what that mistake is. The error is, in fact, a rather common one and lies in the use of the relative pronoun ‘whom,’ which is the objective or accusative case of the nominative form ‘who,’ and that nominative form is what is actually needed for correct grammar: ‘How do you know who your average reader is?’
Why? Well, let me start by clarifying that it is a valid question. After all, the subject of the sentence (you) is ideally knowing the object (the reader represented by the word ‘whom’), so using the objective case may seem a rational choice. Certainly that argument would make sense were there no relative clause in the sentence: ‘How do you know him or her?’ is correct with the accusatives ‘him’ and ‘her,’ after all. However, the relative clause that consists of ‘whom your average reader is’ or, more correctly, ‘who your average reader is’ changes the grammatical structure of the sentence due to the nature of relative clauses.
In a relative clause, the grammatical case of the relative pronoun is determined by its function within its relative clause, not by its relationship to its antecedent (stated or otherwise) in the main sentence. In the sentence I have quoted above, the reader may be the object of the subject’s knowledge, but that reader is nonetheless the subject of the relative clause, so the relative pronoun referring to the reader must be in the nominative case. If ‘whom’ instead represented the object of the relative clause, it would be the correct form: ‘How do you know whom your average reader enjoys most?’ Here the reader is the subject of the relative clause and ‘whom’ represents the author that reader enjoys more than others. ‘Whom’ would also be appropriate for the dative case, but then the preposition ‘to’ is necessary as well: ‘How do you know to whom you should market your book?’
As tricky as it can be at times to use relative pronouns correctly, it is essential to do so in scholarly and professional writing in order to communicate clearly with readers, maintain a high standard of written expression and achieve successful publication. Indeed, those at the press who published the erroneous sentence would be wise to reflect on who their average readers are and perhaps spend a little more time on proofreading. After all, a newsletter aimed at authors, who ought to know grammar better than that sentence implies, just might lose those average readers through such an obvious grammatical error.
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