October 28, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Who or whom & More on numbers and numerals

Posted in number/numeral, numbers and numerals, who/whom at 9:02 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Who or whom

A reader writes:

Hi, I have a wlut for you. What is the appropriate use of “whom”? For example, is it correct to say the following:

“I am writing a letter of introduction for Dr. Sam whom I came to know while working at the library.”

Back to the basics. I think a refresher on this is a great idea because lots of people find this to be tricky.

Who and whom are both pronouns, with ‘who’ acting as the subject of the sentence and ‘whom’ acting as the object.

The professor stopped the lecture and glared at the class.

In this sentence, the professor is the subject, and there are two objects, lecture and class. The professor is taking the action, stopping the lecture and glaring at the class (the professor is implied in the second clause). In the first clause, lecture is the object-what did the professor stop? The lecture-the action was done to the lecture. In the second clause, class is the object of the prepositional phrase ‘at the class.’

There are rumors to the effect that ‘whom’ will soon be dying out and will be replaced by ‘who’ in all occasions. The only problem is that these rumors have been around for hundreds of years, and ‘whom’ is still hanging in.

In conversation, ‘whom’ is used less often than ‘who’; ‘whom’ often sounds stilted and unnaturally formal. Even picky grammarians are apt to say “Who are you talking to?” instead of “To whom are you talking?” But in writing, especially formal writing, it still behooves us to make the distinction between ‘whom’ and ‘who.’

One way to decide when to use ‘who’ and when to use ‘whom’ is to substitute these pronouns with other pronouns. For instance, try replacing ‘who’ the subject with ‘he’ or ‘she,’ and try replacing ‘whom’ with the object forms, ‘him’ or ‘her.’

In the reader’s sentence, ‘whom’ is correct because it is the object of the phrase ‘I came to know.’ If we tried substituting, we would say, “I came to know him or her,” and not, “I came to know he or she.”

If you still can’t decide whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom,’ (and I would argue that if you try the substituting, you should be able to figure it out) but if you really can’t, use ‘who’ as your default.

The odds are that the reader either won’t notice or won’t know the difference.

But keep in mind that there are some (and I’m one) who will.

Tip 2: More on numbers and numerals

A reader writes:

Can you please comment on when the sentence includes both a number under 10 and one over 10?

Example: The proposed study is one that is going to enroll approximately 30 subjects.

This is a great question, and, of course, there a couple of answers to it-the first of which is “it depends.”

What does it depend on? It depends on the relationship of the numbers to each other and the units the numbers represent.

For example, in the sentence that the writer wrote, the numbers refer to the study and to the number of subjects. They are not closely connected, and they refer to different units (a study versus people/subjects). When this is the case, it is okay to have both numbers and numerals, so following the rule of writing out numbers under 10 and using numerals for 10 and over can be followed. Thus, the example is written correctly.

The proposed study is one that is going to enroll approximately 30 subjects.

However, if the numbers are closely connected, and the units referenced are the same, then we want to have symmetry in writing. For example:

Yesterday, we bicycled 8 miles, but tomorrow, we are hoping to bike 15 miles.

Since we are referring to miles each time, the number should be written the same way. You can use either numbers or numerals here; the key is to be consistent.

Yesterday, we bicycled eight miles, but tomorrow, we are hoping to bike fifteen miles.

So what happens when we have a series of numbers? I love it when readers answer questions for me. Let’s see what the next reader has to say.

Another reader writes:

Here’s a rule that I usually need to search for: In a series of numbers, some of which are above nine and others below, write all the numbers as figures. Example: We received 25 computers, 4 printers, and 65 instruction manuals. It’s an exception to “always write out numbers less than 10” that isn’t always noted.

The reader is exactly right. She goes on to ask:

Is that really a rule or just a style thing?

When it comes to numbers, there are no rules, really, there are conventions and styles. If you look at different style guides, you will find great variation in most matters involving numbers, including how to handle numbers greater than 10 (most guides agree that you spell out numbers that are less than 10). While most agree that we should spell out numbers that begin a sentence, there isn’t even consensus on that; for example, in the journal, Lancet, you will often find sentences beginning with numerals. The best bet is to check and see what style guide your journal uses, and follow those conventions. And when in doubt, pick a style and use it consistently. Consistency is the key.

And yet another reader writes:

Why not, shouldn’t 13 40 foot trees vs. thirteen 40 foot trees be 13 40-foot trees or 13 forty-foot trees, following your hyphenation rules?

Last week, I noted that the convention is to spell out the smaller of the numbers when two numbers are next to one another, using the example, ‘thirteen 40 foot trees.’ Again, this is a convention not a rule, and its goal is to promote clarity. Generally, people finding it confusing to have two numbers next to each other, so despite the use of the hyphen in the reader’s example, I would avoid writing ’13 40-foot trees.’ On the other hand, our goal is clarity, and I think ’13 forty-foot trees’ is very clear, so I have no problem with that. Although the common convention is to spell out the smaller of the numbers, as long as the meaning is clear (and the hyphens are used correctly), I think it’s fine to spell out the larger number.

Numbers can be tricky, and there’s a lot more about numbers to talk about, and over time, we will-heck, we haven’t even addressed rounding, yet. But this is a start.

I’ll leave the last words to Albert Einstein who said:

The grand aim of all science is to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms.


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