Whom Do You Love

When I was in college, I worked behind the front desk of a major hotel. Directly across the lobby was the hotel bar, a small, dark lounge with the bar counter on the opposite side and a stage at one end. George Thorogood, when he stayed at the hotel, would sit at the far end of the counter, next to the stage. 

Connie, the bartender, once told me that her job was to keep people away from George, but I never once saw her have to do this. George Thorogood would nurse his drink in silence. That’s when I started listening to his music and became a fan. 

My favorite song performed by George Thorogood is “Move It On Over,” and my second favorite is “Who Do You Love?” This order would be reversed except for one thing: bad grammar in the song title. To be grammatically correct, “Who Do You Love?” should be “Whom Do You Love?” 

Why Whom?
Many people are confused by “whom.” What does “whom” mean? When do you use “whom”? These are easy questions to answer if you know about objects and object pronouns. 

An object in a sentence is either (1) the referent for a preposition or (2) the recipient of an action. Let’s look at these in order. 

Referent for a preposition: Take any preposition (e.g., “to,” “for,” “under,” “beside,” “within”). Say the preposition and ask “what?” The answer will be the object of the preposition, the word to which the preposition refers, i.e., the referent. Let’s try a few. 

  • “Above the table.” Above what? The table. Thus, “table” is the object of the preposition “above.”
  • “Around the corner.” Around what? The corner. Thus, “corner” is the object of the preposition.
  • “Below the belt.” Below what? The belt. Thus, “belt” is the object of the preposition.
  • “Next to the ugly dog.” Next to what? The ugly dog. Thus, “ugly dog” is the object of the preposition.
  • “From Susan.” From what (or whom)? Susan. Thus, “Susan” is the object of the preposition. 

Recipient of an action: Many actions are performed on something else. We call these verbs “transitive verbs” (e.g., “read,” “drive,” “eat,” “deliver”). Say the verb and then ask “what?” The answer will be the direct object of the verb. This direct object will be the recipient of the action, the thing being acted on. Let’s try a few. 

  • “Bake the cake.” Bake what? The cake. Thus, “cake” is the direct object of “bake.”
  • “Sing a song.” Sing what? A song. Thus, “song” is the direct object of “sing.”
  • “Eat a pizza.” Eat what? A pizza. Thus, “pizza is the direct object of “eat.”
  • “Put on smelly clothes.” Put on what? Smelly clothes. Thus, “smelly clothes” is the direct object of “put on.”
  • “Forget John.” Forget what (or whom)? John. Thus, “John” is the direct object of “forget.” 

Now that we can find the objects in sentences, we can replace those objects with pronouns. To do this correctly, we need to use object pronouns. Object pronouns are the only pronouns that can be used as objects in sentences, which is why they are called object pronouns. 

Object pronouns: “me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “it,” “whom,” “us,” “them.” Let’s try a few of these, using the samples above. 

  • “Above the table.” Replace “table” with “it” to get “Above it.”
  • “From Susan.” Replace “Susan” with “her” to get “From her.”
  • “Put on smelly clothes.” Replace “smelly clothes” with “them” to get “Put on them” (or, more commonly, “Put them on.”)
  • “Forget John.” Replace “John” with “him” to get “Forget him.” 

Whom Do You Love?
With an understanding of objects and the list of object pronouns, we can, finally, understand why “Who Do You Love?” should be “Whom do you love?” Let’s see what “Who” is doing in this sentence. 

The verb here is “love,” or, more completely, “do love.” This is an action being done to something else. It is being used as a transitive verb, so it needs an object. In short, the action of loving is being done to “who,” and that’s the grammatical problem. “Who” is not an object pronoun! 

Look at that list of object pronouns again. We don’t find “who.” Instead, we see that “whom” is the object pronoun. This song title needs an object pronoun, so it needs the word “whom.” To be grammatically correct, this song title should be written “Whom Do You Love?” 

The Easy Way
I have an easy strategy for figuring out when to use “whom” instead of “who.” The pronoun “who” can only be used as the subject of the verb. For example, in “Who wants more cake?” “who” is the subject of the verb “wants.” If the pronoun isn’t being used as the subject of a verb, you can’t use “who.” Use “whom.” 

Subject = “who”
Non-subject = “whom” 

Yes, using “whom” sounds funny in this song title, but it is correct. I’ll give Thorogood a pass on this error, though. If, as the lyrics say, he has a cobra necktie and a chimney made from a human skull, using perfectly grammatical language may be, well, out of character. And it’s still a really great song.


Filed under Writing

5 responses to “Whom Do You Love

  1. The whole “whom” thing has always thrown me off. I like the simplified version. Thanks!

  2. Patricia

    good post… I am a fan of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Who do you Love” suite even better than George’s… different era, different effect.. . Written by Bo Diddley, I believe.

  3. That “whom” is not “correct” would be a valid reason to dislike the song if, indeed, the song was meant to be written in Standard English, rather than Vernacular English. I see that you are using the song as an attention-getter, but if you would read the lyrics, the rest of the song is clearly written in a variant of Southern American Vernacular English, with words and phrases like “I got” for “I have” and “it’s a-made,” and the double-negation of “don’t you give me no lip.” As such, it would actually be incorrect, and at least very inconsistent, if the song’s title used “whom” instead of “who.” “Who” stands in for both the subject and the object in the grammar of Vernacular English. The idea behind prescriptive grammar should not be to chastise people and texts for their use of native, vernacular language, which does have its own value and proper setting (see The Grapes of Wrath, for instance), but to help people distinguish the settings in which either should be used, and it should teach how Standard English – the native language of virtually nobody – works in those settings to which it pertains. I believe you have done half of that job in this blog entry.

    But, no, Thorogood did not make an error in titling his song. He used the vernacular in order to appeal to his audience and to charge his song with the crude, heartfelt emotion and familiarity that it, after all, does convey quite well. In fact, he did use “perfectly grammatical language” – just not “perfectly grammatical” Standard English.

    And, in speech, it often comes across as pretentious and haughty if one speaks anything too close to Standard English in a casual setting and, especially, if one decries others’ usages of the vernacular in that same setting. Each grammar has its domain of respectability.

  4. Anecdotaleva: Partial agreement.

    You will see in the final paragraph that I agree that the use of “who” in the title may be more appropriate than “whom.” I have long argued that language use should be crafted to fit both the audience and the purpose. This is why I give a “pass” to the song title and find it acceptable.

    But it’s still an error.

  5. Josh

    “Correct” or not, very very few native English speakers would naturally say something like “whom do you love?” Just a very very few would naturally point at someone in a group photo to identify a friend of theirs and say “that’s he!”

    I believe that even among those who know that’s how you’re “supposed” to say it, it still wouldn’t come naturally for most of them. Languages change and evolve over time, so at a certain point, when a critical mass of the language’s speakers have abandoned a convention, the gramaticians have to catch up and say that’s no longer how it is.

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