Three Grammar Gaffs and How to Avoid Them

Is it who or whom? Plural or singular?

Questions like these can leave a writer paralyzed in the minefield of the English language. Relax. You don’t have to start reading English textbooks in your spare time. Here are tips and tricks to help you navigate around three common grammar gaffes.

Whoever or whomever? Ask a grammarian, and they’ll start tossing around scary-sounding terms like “dependent clauses” and “subjective and objective case.” Huh? Here’s a trick that neatly sidesteps the jargon.

First we need a sample sentence:

_____ will win the race?

Is it “who” or “whom?” Good question. To determine that, first separate the clause beginning with “_____” and turn it into a statement:

_____ will win the race.

What fits here? “Him will win the race?” Nope. How about “He will win the race.” That’s better. If “he” or “she” makes sense, use who; if “him” or “her” makes sense, use whom:

Who will win the race?

Try these:
He gave the trophy to the winner of the race, _____ he noticed crossing the finish line first.

Is it “who” or “whom?” First, separate the clause and make it a statement:

He noticed _____ crossing the finish line first.

“Him” makes sense here, so use whom:

He gave the trophy to the winner of the race, whom he noticed crossing the finish line first.

Give the trophy to _____ comes first.

Is it “whoever” or “whomever?” First create the statement:

_____ comes first.

“He” makes sense here, so use whoever:

Give the trophy to whoever comes first.

Give colorful ribbons to _____ you’ve neglected.

Is it “whoever” or “whomever?” Here’s the statement:

You’ve neglected _____.

Yup, you’ve got it – you wouldn’t say “You’ve neglected he,” so “whomever” fills in the blank:

Give colorful ribbons to whomever you’ve neglected.

Dealing with who and whom and whoever wasn’t so bad, was it. But wait–should that last sentence have contained a plural construction? Should it have read “Dealing with who and whom and whoever weren’t so bad, were they?” There were several items listed, after all…

In this case, “who and whom and whoever” can be lumped together into one problem that you had to deal with, not several. So the subject of this sentence can be treated as singular–it wasn’t so bad.

But – My heart and my mind are yours – is indeed plural. Why? There are two separate subjects in this sentence–the heart, and the mind. You wouldn’t think of your heart and your mind as one and the same thing, but two things, separated by “and.”

How about this one:
“The trophy, as well as the colorful ribbons, was given away.” There’s a whole bunch of ribbons along with that trophy; shouldn’t that be “were given away”? Not in this case. “As well as” signals an addition to the sentence, an extra that goes along with the trophy, which is the true subject of the sentence. Since there’s just one trophy, we ignore what’s in between, and use the singular “was given away.”

Some words suggest “one” or “none” and so signal a singular construction:
neither…nor (none of them)
either…or (one or the other)
anybody (any one body)
anyone (any one person)
everybody (every one body)
everyone (every one person)
everything (every one thing)
no one
somebody (some one body)
something (some one thing)

Everyone is going to the party.
Neither of the books is overdue.
Each knife and fork needs to be washed BUT Louis and Kathy each have different ideas. Why? “Each” before signals “one”–each knife and each fork. “Each” after signals that Kathy has one set of ideas, and Louis has one set of ideas–but there are two of them. So it’s plural.

One more:
The two daughters or the son stays late at the library BUT The son or the two daughters stay late at the library. When you’re looking at a compound subject joined by “or,” look at the subject nearest the verb. If the subject is the singular son, the verb–stays–is singular, too. If the subject nearest the verb is plural, as in the two daughters, then the verb is plural too–stay.

“So where’s the trick?” you’re thinking. This one’s not so easy. It takes some concentration. Look at the sentence and determine what it’s talking about. Once you’ve determined what the subject of the sentence is, look at it. Is it one thing, or several? The number of the subject that the sentence is about will tell you whether it has to be talked about as one thing (singular) or several (plural).