October 27, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Who or whom & hyphens again, interrater or inter-rater

Posted in hyphen, hyphen/compound words, hyphens and prefixes, who/whom at 6:49 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Who or whom

A reader writes:

 I need help with use of Whom vs. Who… and vaguely remember you did that in past. Can you help me with that again?

I am happy to, and this is a good time to remind you that every installment of the wlut is available on-line, and all issues are indexed by topic with a pull-down menu for easy identification. Here is the URL,  https://languagetips.wordpress.com/, so you can access older editions at any time. But back to the question. We did address this before, but I am going to try and approach it from a different angle this time. This time, let’s forget about parts of speech and objects and subjects and all of that. I am going to share with you one sure fire method for deciding which word—who or whom—to use and a fallback plan.

First, the rules aren’t followed strictly in informal communication, particularly spoken conversation. ‘To whom do you wish to speak’? or even ‘Whom do you wish to speak to’? are grammatically correct, but they sound as stuffy as can be, and if you said this to someone, I suspect that they would look at you askance. When talking, I would stick to ‘who’ except in the most formal contexts. It’s grammatically incorrect, but most people are comfortable with it, and you are less apt to be viewed as a snob.

In writing, however, especially scientific writing, we should bring ‘whom’ into play. So what is the sure fire method? Simply this: Replace ‘who’ with ‘she’ or ‘he’ or ‘they,’ and replace ‘whom’ with ‘her’ or ‘him’ or ‘them.’ You may have to play with the sentence so it works, for instance, you may have to turn questions into statements. If the switching works and the sentences make sense, you have the right word; if not, then, you want ‘who’ if you have ’whom’ and ‘whom’ if you have ‘who.’ Let’s try some examples:

The physicians, one of whom was awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry, wrote about their most recent experiment in Science.

Okay, we know ‘whom’ is standing in for ‘physicians,’ so we are searching for a plural: ‘they’ or ‘them.’ And we would say, ’one of them was awarded …’ not ‘one of they’ so ‘whom’ is correct.

It was Thomas Edison, I think, whom was responsible for the invention of the light bulb.

Would you say ‘him was responsible for the invention’ or ‘he was responsible for the invention.’ Of course it would be ‘he,’ and, thus, the sentence should correctly use ‘who.’

It was Thomas Edison, I think, who was responsible for the invention of the light bulb.

Much better.

Professor Morgan was excited about the results of an experiment conducted by her mentor who she admired.

Would we say ‘Professor Morgan admired her’ or Professor Morgan admired she”? Of course it would be ‘her,’ so ‘who’ is incorrect and should be replaced by ‘whom.’

 Professor Morgan was excited about the results of an experiment conducted by her mentor whom she admired.

Let’s try one more.

Dr. Walters did not know whom was responsible for the mistake.

‘Him was responsible’ or ‘he was responsible’? Definitely ‘he,’ so ‘who’ would be the correct word.

Dr. Walters did not know who was responsible for the mistake.

Is that better? And I promised you a fallback plan. Here it is: If you can’t decide whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom,’ use ‘who.’  Many readers will not know if it is correct or incorrect, and many authorities have been trying to deter people from using ‘whom’ for centuries. According to Bryson, Noah Webster was one of the first detractors, pointing out that the word was needless and doesn’t provide additional clarity. Some people do notice though, so if you can figure out which word to use, please do so, and if not, don’t worry about it too much.

Tip 2: Hyphens again/inter-rater or interrater

A reader writes:

Sorry if you have commented on this already and I missed it…

I am writing a manuscript now and I do not know the correct spelling of the word(s):  interrater.  I’ve looked online and I see it reported in two different ways:

1.        Interrater

2.        Inter-rater

Which is more appropriate?

We’ve talked before about using a hyphen between a root word and its prefix (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/hyphen/page/2/), but it’s worth reminding folks.

The most important thing to remember is that there is no hard and fast rule about this; no grammar police are going to hunt you down, no matter whether you hyphenate or not.

There is a predisposition, in the US, to drop the hyphen between the root and the prefix, resulting in such words as: semiautomatic, subheading, antiwar, coauthor, hypoactive, pseudosophisticated, nonviolent, unequivocal, etc. I only use they hyphen when it is needed to make the meaning of the word clear such as re-create as distinct from recreate, re-press as distinct from repress, re-cover as distinct from recover, and so on.

‘Inter-rater’ versus ‘interrater’ creates a bit of a quandary because I can easily deduce the meaning of ‘interrater,’ but somebody who does not do research may be stumped by the word. I think the double r formation could cause confusion. However, inter-rater is immediately clear, so I would go with the hyphen in this case to ensure clarity.

Just for fun, I entered ‘inter-rater’ and ‘interrater’ into Googlefight (googlefight.com) which is not one of Google’s sites, but a third party site that compares the number of mentions in Google searches of each of the words you enter. When I ran this fight, ‘inter-rater’ was the clear winner with 304,000 hits compared to interrater’s paltry 187,000 hits.

So, this is one word I will continue to hyphenate, but remember, this is a matter of style and preference rather than grammatical law. Feel free to use or not use the hyphen according to your whim. Who says language can’t be fun?


  1. Kelsey said,

    For my SAT tutoring students, I explain the who/whom issue much as you just did. Then I point out that if gender accuracy (or political correctness) is not a do-or-die issue for them, they can rearrange the sentence and replace the word in question with “he” or “him.” This gives the added memory aid that “he” and “who” both end with vowels, while “him” and “whom” both end with the same letter. A little slant rhyme does wonders for their memories! Moreover, simply having fewer alternatives makes this mnemonic device easier to remember.

  2. ObsessiveTruthSeeker said,

    Here is an example where the hyphen was not used:
    The headline read:
    “We came to rape victim’s aid in minutes: Delhi Police”


    It would’ve been so better if it had been:
    “We came to rape-victim’s aid in minutes: Delhi Police”

  3. ObsessiveTruthSeeker said,

    Google search results show that “aid” and “aide” are two commonly confused words. Thankfully, the headline used the correct word.

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