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In correspondence this morning, I found myself using a very verbal construction:

Your Recommendation is entirely up to you in terms of the who and why.

With due respect to the he:him::who:whom rule here, how should I have constructed this sentence in formal, professional correspondence?

  • Should I have used "who" or "whom"?
  • Should I have offset "who" and "why" with quotes?
  • Is there a special word for the usage of [who/why/when,etc] when they are used in this objective/subjective fashion?
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You shouldn't use this construction at all in formal, professional correspondence because it's informal. In a formal context you'd probably want words like assigned personnel and rationale. – FumbleFingers Mar 23 '11 at 17:20
Are there really workplaces in the English-speaking world where "the who and why" would be considered unacceptably informal? I can't believe it. – Jason Orendorff Mar 23 '11 at 19:45
I've never seen "the whom" used to mean "the question of whom" until now, but astonishingly it is done. The What, the Whom, and the Hows of Survey Research, for example. – Jason Orendorff Mar 23 '11 at 20:05
@Jason The email was meant as an "explain this to me like I'm a Fourth Grader" communication to a client; so it was a hodge-podge of formal/professional (due to it being with a client) and informal/verbal (because it was explaining something in its basest terms). That said, I used 'who' so as to not confuse the person being explained to. – mfg Mar 23 '11 at 20:36
up vote 4 down vote accepted

It works like this. You take a phrase, like who would be the best man for the job?. You reduce it to one word, who?. You do the same for when should this job be done?. You then use these phrases as nouns: what matters most is the who, not the when. Sentences like His no really shattered my dreams and I want no ifs or buts! are results of the same process.

You could choose to add quotation marks and question marks with these questions-turned-one-word-nouns, but that is usually not done. They are mostly either not marked at all, or written in italics.

The implicit question behind this who is rather free: it could be whom do you consider the best man for the job?, or who should do it?. Since there is no way to tell what the implicit question was if you use only who, you are theoretically free to choose who or whom, unless context forces you into assuming one implicit question or another. Conventionally most people would use the neutral form who in most cases, which is what I recommend.

The use of who and when in this fashion is informal. If you're aiming at a rather formal style, you'd better avoid such constructions. Incidentally, the current style of your quote is rather informal as well.

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It depends whether the person (the who) would be a subject or not.

  • If you mean “you can decide freely who should write it”, then it's “in terms of the who [will write it] and why”
  • If you mean “you can decide whom it should be sent to”, then it's “in terms of the whom [it will be sent to] and why”

All in all, it's probably who.

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