Grammar: Your Secret Writing Weapon

This guest post is by Deena Nataf. Deena is a magazine and book editor with thirty years of experience. Besides her editing, book mentoring, and manuscript evaluation business, she runs, which helps writers make their mark on the world through hands-on posts on writing techniques and tips for the writing life. Today she’s giving away a free copy of her guide, “13 Grammar Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make…and How to Avoid Them.” Thanks Deena!

Looking for a way to achieve an edge that will raise your writing to the top of an agent’s or editor’s inbox? Dreaming that your pitches, cover letters, query letters, and actual prose will stand out and be noticed? Just want to be taken more seriously as a writer?

It’s a lot easier than you think.

who vs whom

There are a lot of writers out there whose books are being published in one way or another. There are thousands of bloggers with gigantic subscriber lists whose posts are appearing in online journals and magazines. But the truth is…

Most of the writing is pretty average.

The Unfortunate Truth about Writing Quality

To be perfectly honest, average will not get you a contract with a major publishing house or periodical. In the blogging and online magazine world, however, it doesn’t matter as much—just look at almost any blog in existence. In my opinion, this is a real pity. Why is this happening?

Online gatekeepers (and those in the vanity press and self-publishing business) have become so used to mediocrity that many of them don’t know the difference between good enough and remarkable anymore. Their eyes are permanently glazed over. You must, therefore, give them a virtual kick in the pants to wake them up and get them to take notice of you.

You need a secret ingredient.

You’d better sit down for this

It’s called grammar.

Okay, don’t panic. Take a deep, cleansing breath, and stay with me.

Happily, though, there is absolutely no need to learn a million rules and to memorize all the past participle/pluperfect/subjunctive stuff. I promise.

I could go on and on about all the grammar mistakes I see (and I cover them on my blog), but let’s just start with my favorite.

The Who/Whom Mystique

Don’t ask me why, but this one sends chills up and down my spine when I see it done wrong. It’s bad enough when computer geeks and other techies screw it up, but I’ve seen even some of the big guns make the who/whom faux pas, and even (gasp!) writing blogs. Every time I see it on one of these blogs I want to yell, “You went to Princeton, for crying out loud! What is wrong with you?”

But I digress.

It’s pretty easy to make the who/whom mistake, but it’s even easier to correct it. Here’s the only hack you’ll need:

How brilliant is that?

Let’s take some examples:

  • To who/m did you give the apple? I gave it to him/Did you give the apple to him? Answer: whom.
  • I have no idea who/m you’re talking about. You are talking about him/Are you talking about him? Answer: whom.
  • It is David who/m runs the kindergarten. He runs the kindergarten/Does he run the kindergarten? Answer: who.
  • It is David who/m I love. I love him/Do I love him? Answer: whom.
  • David is the man who/m everyone thinks is the best teacher in the neighborhood. Everyone thinks he is the best teacher in the neighborhood/Does everyone think he is the best teacher in the neighborhood? Answer: who.
  • David is the man who/m everyone thinks of when the word “teacher” pops into their head. Everyone thinks of him as the consummate teacher/Does everyone think of him as the consummate teacher? Answer: whom.
  • Who/m makes the apple pie around here? He makes the pie/Does he make the pie? Answer: You’re such an expert by now that you can tell me.
  • I can’t remember who/m told me. He told me/Did he tell me? I’m not even writing “Answer” over here (although I just did).

Who/Whom on the Master’s Level

This one’s far more tricky than the Bachelor’s-level examples I gave you above. Let’s do it together:

  • The phone rang. She asked me who/m it was.

How many of you said the following in your head: “It’s him on the phone”/”Is it him on the phone”?

I rest my case.

This requires another mini-grammar lesson, which I call the ‘Tis I Rule. It goes like this:


Hello? Who is it?

‘Tis I.

If you can answer ‘Tis I for a question, go for the “who.”

(Fun fact: neither I nor he have the letter m in them, and thus the answer is who; me and him do, and thus the answer is whom.)

  • Please share my blog with anyone who/whom you know would benefit from it.

This one’s tricky because had I said only, “Please share my blog with anyone who/whom you know,” the answer would be “whom”: I know him/do I know him? However, here, the last phrase (“would benefit from it”) takes precedence: He would benefit from it/Would he benefit from it? Answer: who.

British and Other Sundry Authorities

According to the British English section of the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, you can use “who” instead of “whom” when you are asking either who did something or to whom something was done, as well as in “indirect questions and statements” (huh?). I will quote them here because their explanation is classic. They even employ the Royal We. Read this with a British accent:

“We use who as an interrogative pronoun to begin questions about people, [and] we use who in indirect questions and statements.”

Love it, but who cares what an interrogative pronoun is? In any case, as a red-blooded American I beg to disagree with Cambridge. Here are two of their examples:

  • Who did you talk to? No, no, no. You talked to him.
  • Can you tell me who I should talk to? Poppycock; in the name of all that’s red, white and blue, you should talk to him.

(Okay, don’t trust me. See This is what they have to say:

  • Whom did they tell?

Or take a look at They say:

  • Whom are you going to invite?
  • Claire saw whom yesterday?
  • Whom did you go to the cinema with?)

You Are Now on the Road to Bigger and Better Things

There is no such thing as superlative writing without superlative knowledge of grammar. It is part and parcel of segueing your first draft into a finished and publishable manuscript or article, and another step on the path toward an acceptance letter. Actively pursue that knowledge, and you’ll find yourself standing out from the crowd.

Do you have any grammar pet peeves? Let us know in the comments below!


Put on your editor’s hat and spend 15 minutes skimming through the most recent posts you read from your favorite bloggers (including The Write Practice!). Find as many who/whom mistakes as you can and correct them. Put the corrected sentences in the comments below. It will be interesting to see who gets the most…or is it whom gets the most? You tell me.

About Guest Blogger

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  • LilianGardner

    I like the post on who/whom, although I feel I know when to use either word. I’ve taken advantage and downloaded 13 Grammar Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make…and How to Avoid Them.
    Thanks Joe.

    • Deena

      Hi. Lilian, and I’m glad you liked the post. Enjoy the ebook, too. It sounds like you are among the few lucky ones who know how to use who and whom properly. Hopefully after this post, many more will join the club.

      • LilianGardner

        Thanks, Deena. I love the use of correct grammar.
        Here are two words that don’t sound quite right.
        He ‘dived’ into the pool: He ‘dove’ into the pool.
        When he ‘got’ to the station: When he had ‘gotten’ to the station.
        ‘dove? and ‘gotten’ sound strange. What do you say?

        • Merriam-Webster lists “dived” as the preferred past tense of “dive”, and “dove” is the second listing.
          As far as “he got” vs. “he had gotten,” knowing which one to use depends on what the writer is trying to say. “He got” is your basic past tense; something happened. “He had gotten,” i.e., the past perfect, indicates that this event happened before another event that’s in the same sentence or thought. Hint: If you can use “already,” then the past perfect would work. Ex.: “He had [already] gotten to the station before the train pulled out”; “The train had [already] left the station by the time he got there.” Sometimes it’s more subtle, so you have to think carefully.
          This is a great subject for another post; I’m thrilled with the engagement here, as it will help me help others! Thanks.

          • Thank you for an insightful post, Deena. My grammar pet peeve is the use of that for people. I was taught to use who for people and that for animals and inanimate objects. What do you think? I also read many published books in which grammar mistakes are prevalent (both grammar and punctuation errors).

          • Hi Beth, and thank you for the compliment. I do not like the use of “that” for people, and in fact yesterday as I was editing the English translation of an Aramaic text, I changed all the “that”s into “who”s. Nevertheless, it’s within the realm of acceptable to use “that” for people, and a well-placed one every once in a while will do no harm.
            All the best,

          • Maud Harris

            I must take issue with the trashing of the Cambridge Dictionaries Online. British English is not an ‘other sundry’. Would you pick apart the ancient grammar of another culture? Indian, or Chinese, for example. There are important and basic differences in language and culture.We are indeed, divided by a common (almost) language.

          • I hear you, Maudie, and I feel very strongly about my position in the who/whom jungle. I think it’s important to take a stand — even if it’s only in the world of grammar. I’m glad you pointed out that others take a different view, as it adds to the conversation. Thank you for commenting.

      • LilianGardner

        I’ve just finished reading 13 Grammar Mistakes and want to let you know that the rules are clear and easy to understand. Thanks again.
        I want to share something with you. My grandson was concerned when I told him I was writing a novel. He asked, ‘Do you know modern English, Gran?” He thought that writng correctly was ‘old-fashioned’ and said I should dot my manuscript with some ‘trendy stuff’. He meant that I should use words like cool, nerd, geek, and other new vocabulary.
        What do you think?
        I’m certain many members of TWP will join the club.

        • I’m really gratified you like the ebook, Lilian!
          With regard to your novel, language needs to come out organically from context and characters. If neither warrants the use of millennium-speak, then steer clear of it. You need to be as authentic as possible. Stephen King discusses this clearly and brilliantly in his “On Writing.” I highly recommend this book to anyone, especially writers.
          Moreover, if you yourself are uncomfortable with the use of these words, then even if warranted in the novel, you and the book will come across as inauthentic. You would have to immerse yourself in an environment of trend speakers for a while in order to pull it off.

          • LilianGardner

            Thanks Deena. This clears my fears of being ‘untrendy’.
            I delight in reading good English, but know that dialogue must have it’s authenticity, relating to the period and situation in which the story takes place.
            I’m writing a book about an Anglo Indian couple who immigrated to America. I use the language they spoke but wonder if it’ll sound strange to readers who are not familiar with this dialogue.

          • Michel

            ….must have ITS authenticity….ooff!

  • JD

    Mis-use of “I” and “me” are HUGE distractions. “They …. to my partner and I” or its equivalent is ubiquitous and grating.

    • Deena

      Hi, JD. You are so right — The misuse of I and me is another grammar faux pas that grates. And I like your description of it as a distraction, which it definitely is. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

  • Hello Deena,
    I am so happy you guest posted here. Your free ebook is wonderful. I printed it out and highlighted it. I look forward to receiving your posts.

    • Wow, thanks, Pamela! I’m especially touched by your compliment because it’s coming from one of Joe’s people! I’m really glad you like the ebook, too. Looking forward to continuing the conversation.

  • LaCresha Lawson

    Okay, very tricky. I will need to make sure I got these down! Oh boy……writing.

    • You can totally do it, LaCresha.

  • Great post, especially as the texting, IMing, Twittering generation comes to age and discovers that they will actually need to learn proper grammar skills.

    One thing, though, no matter how many times I read it, I’ll never be able to figure out the who/whom thing 🙂

    • Hi, Jason, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I know that you will be able to do the who/whom thing; just substitute them with he/him and you’re good to go.

      I agree with you regarding this generation, and I pity them and their teachers 🙂 It’s really hard to focus properly on grammar when you communicate like this: “hi how r u? will i c u 2 morr or no? u r a gr8 guy, dont 4get. luv u.”

      One day we’ll have to hire translators for this….

  • Tinthia Clemant

    I struggle with while and as. While pouring the tea as the rain beat against the tin roof. OR While the rain beat against the tin roof, her thoughts wandered as she poured the tea.

  • EmFairley

    Great post. Thanks!

  • Emma Stephens

    I’m afraid I have to disagree with this post.

    The most important function of grammar is to create clarity for the reader. I would argue that in contemporary works, no reader will stumble over a sentence where “who” is used instead of “whom” since modern language has evolved to accept “who” in place of “whom”. For me, the fact that grammar evolves over time is one of the more interesting aspects of it.

    I would say that if you are (see, I didn’t write “one is” there as that has also fallen out of favour in modern language) writing a modern work of fiction, it is not necessary to worry about the correct usage of “who” and “whom” since your reader is used to using “who” interchangeably in modern speech. If you are writing an academic essay, perhaps it would bear thinking about.

    I’m probably going to get a huge backlash from grammar lovers now!

    • alan carter

      Yes, I’m sure the backlash bell will toll for you. Brace yourself.

    • No worries, Emma! You’re in good company. Many grammarians are relaxing their standards in favor of “the way people talk.” Being of the slightly older generation I have a hard time with this, but it’s always great to keep the dialogue going! Thank you for writing in. Deena

      • David Franklin

        Deena, I don’t understand your take on things. Surely a language is common property of its users, and common practice among them for understanding each other is what any sensible member of a community should use? We see this in practice with the use of dialect, slang, and registers. We adapt to the community to be understood, we do not expect them to adapt to us. Why should the common core of English be different? Why should it be dictated by grammarian overlords? Why should we follow made up or antiquated laws imposed by an elite, which hinder rather than foster understanding?

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  • S.Ramalingam

    English being my second language,this article is quite useful to me.Thanks.

  • WritingBoy

    Grammar? When did this happen! Since the 80s and the horror crapola and the ‘Harry Potter’ stuff that was dumped off the back of a truck, I thought that matter was dead in the water!

  • Chat Ebooks

    The misuse of “I” and “me” is something that should have been addressed ages ago! Unfortunately, this is not the case. Thanks for this post!

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