For who the bell tolls

Posted on Dec 13, 2011 | Comments Off on For who the bell tolls

For who the bell tolls? It just doesn’t have the right ring to it, does it?

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne had it right when he wrote these lines in 1624. Today, in everyday conversation, even I often say “who” when I mean “whom:” “Who is this for?” But when you write, you still need to make the distinction between who and whom. The choice comes down to a matter of case, and case is determined by how a word functions in your sentence.

  • Who is in the subjective case, meaning it is the actor. Who does something.
  • Whom is in the objective case, meaning it is the object of the action. Something is done to whom.

Take a look at your sentence. Is who/whom doing something? Can you substitute “he”? Then use who. Or is who/whom having something done to/with/for it? Can you substitute “him”? Then use whom.

In other words, who can toll the bell, but the bell tolls for whom.

Sometimes you have to remove extra words from your sentence to clearly see the basic clause (subject, verb and object). “I like people (who/whom) amuse me.”  In this example, who is doing the action: “who amuse me.”

Other times it helps to rearrange the words to more easily identify the subject and object. “I like people (who/whom) I can amuse.” This time, I am doing the action and whom is being acted upon, which becomes obvious once you pull out the clause and rearrange it to read, “… I can amuse whom.”

Must go—someone’s ringing my bell!