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March 30th, 2005

Two years experience or two years' experience? / the use of whom

by Barbara Wallraff

Carole Arsenault, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, writes: “My company recently placed an employment ad in the paper. Part of it read ‘minimum two years’ experience.’ I am not sure the possessive apostrophe after ‘years’ is correct. Other ads I read did not have one. Is it ‘two years experience’ or ‘two years’ experience’?”

Dear Carole: That possessive apostrophe is perfectly correct. People often mistakenly think that the grammatical term “possessive” always refers to ownership, belonging to, or, well, possession. Sometimes it does -- as in “Carole’s newspaper.” But possessives fill other roles too, and a common one is in expressions of time or value: “two weeks’ notice,” “two dollars’ worth.”

Whenever you’re wondering whether a phrase like this needs an apostrophe, try mentally substituting “one” for “two” (or whatever other number is in the phrase you’re wondering about). “Two years’ experience” and “two years experience” sound the same -- but “one year’s experience” and “one year experience” are easy to tell apart. And of course you’d say “one year’s experience.” You’d also say “one week’s notice” and “one dollar’s worth.” Just remember, when you go back to your plural, to put the apostrophe back after the “s,” where it belongs on a plural possessive.

Samuel Bell, of Madison, Wis., writes: “My mother taught me to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly, but I’ve never actually used ‘whom’ in daily speech. I do frequently use ‘whom’ in writing. Recently, however, I’ve been seeing ‘whom’ less and less often. Many writers replace it incorrectly with ‘who.’ What should I do? Should I keep on sounding awkward or succumb to poor usage?”

Dear Samuel: Thank goodness, there are usually other options. It is true that some experts on language have argued for a very long time that “whom” is mostly useless and bound to fade away. Noah Webster, America’s great dictionary maker, denounced the word as long ago as 1783. In 1990 William Safire wrote, “The best rule for dealing with ‘who’ vs. ‘whom’ is this: Whenever ‘whom’ is required, recast the sentence.” And yet “whom” continues to come naturally to us in certain constructions -- for instance, “for whom the bell tolls” and “language experts, many of whom have a few odd ideas ...” “Whom” isn’t about to disappear altogether.

But you’re right that it can be awkward even though it’s correct. For instance, “He’s someone whom I like very much” and “Whom can you trust?” both seem stilted -- at least, they do to me. By the way, anyone whose mother didn’t explain the correct use of “whom” can learn the rule in about 10 seconds: Wherever you’d use “him” or “her,” not “he” or “she,” “whom” is grammatically correct. That is, you’d say “I like him very much” (not “I like he”) and “Can you trust her?” (not “Can you trust she?”). Therefore “whom” is correct in the stilted sentences above. Nonetheless, for sentences like those, Safire’s advice may be worth taking. We can just lop “whom” out of the first sentence: “He’s someone I like very much.” “Whom can you trust?” is trickier to recast. Maybe “Can you trust anyone?” or “Which people can you trust?” Or, gulp, “Who can you trust?”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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