Errors & Omissions: Who, whom, that, which – they're not interchangeable

  • @johnrentoul

Who and its related words often snag writers. In a feature about the housing for Olympic athletes, we wrote on Wednesday: "In all, 203 countries have teams staying in the village, many of whom's animosity towards one another extends far beyond the synchronised swimming pool." What a mess. That "whom's" should be "whose". Like him and her, which become his and hers, the possessive form of these pronouns loses its apostrophe and the word changes form. Whatever the word should be, it had also become separated from the "countries" to which it refers, as the teams themselves are presumably not all hostile to each other outside the sporting arena. (The "synchronised" was an attempted comic effect too far, as synchronised swimming takes place in the same Aquatics Centre as other pool-based so-called sports.) Finally, and not surprisingly in such a sentence, we lost track of "many countries" being plural, perhaps partly because of the use of "one another". The sentence could have read: "In all, 203 countries, many of whose animosities towards each other extend far beyond sporting competition, have teams staying in the village."

Then, in a sidebar giving a "brief history" of Olympic villages, we said: "It was Hitler at the Berlin Games of 1936 that ratcheted up the significance of the Athletes' Village." The "that" should be "who", as it refers to a person, but I used the two interchangeably until quite recently, so I cannot complain.

Spoiler alert A comment article's headline on Wednesday was: "How come pawnbroking is becoming respectable, all over again?" This was a pity, because the point of the opening two paragraphs was that it was not immediately obvious what kind of shop the elegantly posh Suttons & Robertsons was. If the writer takes the trouble to surprise the reader, the headline-writer should be careful not to spoil it.

Bad place We carried a short profile on our news pages yesterday of Lord Green, the Trade minister who has "questions to answer" according to the Labour Party about his time as chairman and chief executive of HSBC. "Unfailingly courteous, cerebral and deeply religious, the tall and bone-thin peer sometimes seemed like one of the better sorts of civil servant when he was running the world's local bank. Which is what he was for a number of years." A bad case of misplaced clauses. I do not mind a full stop followed by "which", but it must come straight after the clause to which it refers.

Yup, that's wrong The standfirst, or sub-headline, on Hamish McRae's Economic View on Thursday read: "Our economy is now around 4 per cent bigger than it was last year, yup, 4 per cent." Someone had apparently read McRae's article too quickly: he said that the UK economy is not in recession, which most people think it is, but he did not go that far: 4 per cent growth would be more than surprising.

What he wrote was "Taken together, these suggest that our economy is now around 4 per cent larger than was estimated a year ago, yup, 4 per cent." It is the estimate that has changed by that amount, not the economy, which may not be shrinking but which is, as McRae said, growing only slowly.

Guy Keleny is away