Who vs Whom

It’s been over two years since I wrote my lie vs lay post. At the time, someone requested that I do one on who vs whom, which prompted me to look up how to use them correctly, since I hadn’t paid much attention to them until then. Even if she no longer wants it, I still would like to write a post explaining when to use who and when to use whom, because I am passionate about proper grammar.

Disclaimer: I am not a grammarian, but in writing this post, I consulted different resources and integrated the information so that it is accurate to the best of my knowledge.

First off, let’s review the roles of the subject, verb, and object in a sentence. (This is super important and is what helped it click for me.) The subject is what the sentence is about, and the verb describes the action of the subject. In other words, the subject does the action. Meanwhile, the object receives the action of the verb. Got it?

Since you probably already know when to use who, and use it when whom should be used, I’ll just write about the distinction between the two, and focus on when to use whom.

Use who (and whoever) when referring to the subject, and whom (and whomever) when referring to the object.

Here’s a table that lays it out

Serve as the Examples Use
Nominative Pronouns subject I, he, she, we, they who/whoever
Objective Pronouns object me, him, her, us, them whom/whomever

You probably have heard before that if you’re not sure whether to use who or whom, substitute the word in question with he or him. If the sentence makes sense with he, use who. If the sentence makes sense with him, use whom. (Him and whom both end in m.) If the sentence is a question, come up with an answer using he or him and see which one makes sense. You can also rephrase the sentence to be a question and apply the same technique.

Now for some examples!

Example: Whom do you have a crush on?
The subject of this sentence is “you” since you’re the one who has the crush on the object. Therefore, it’s correct to use whom here. I know it might sound awkward because we’re not used to hearing it, but the answer “I have a crush on him,” makes sense, so you know you’re supposed to use whom.

Example: She is with her little brother, whom she has to babysit all the time.
Rephrase the sentence as though you were answering the question, “who/whom does she have to babysit all the time?” “She has to babysit him all the time” makes sense, whereas “she has to babysit he all the time” doesn’t, so we know whom is the correct word.

Example: This is John, whom I met at last year’s retreat.
Just isolate the clause containing who/whom. The subject of the verb met is I. I met him makes sense. Therefore, we should use whom.

Example: The suspect, who was wearing light-up shoes, was last seen in the parking lot at 9 PM.
The suspect is the subject of the sentence. He was wearing light-up shoes. Therefore, who is the correct word.

Now it gets complicated

Some of the examples above had more than one clause in the sentence, but it was clear what the subject and object of the verbs were. However, it can be confusing when the relative pronoun in question (i.e. who/whom) is between two verbs. This is when it’s useful to review what clauses are. A clause is a group of words consisting of a subject and verb. (For a more in-depth explanation and examples of clauses and how they relate to sentences and phrases, see this and this.) It is important to first identify the clauses that make up the sentence, and then identify the subject of each clause. Remember, the subject of a clause always remains a part of that clause!

If that was confusing, just isolate the clause containing who/whom.

Example: Whomever she marries is a lucky man.
In the clause “whomever she marries,” she is the subject and whomever is the object of marries. To check, “she marries him” makes sense. Now, had the sentence been “whoever marries her is a lucky man,” whoever is the subject of marries.

Example: I will pick whoever finishes first.
At first glance, it looks like the correct word should be whomever, because “I will pick him” makes sense. However, “whoever finishes first” is a separate clause, with whoever being the subject of “finishes first.”

It may be tempting to always use whom/whomever following the words “to” and “for,” but it’s not always correct. First identify the subject in each clause.

Example: She will talk to whoever will listen.
You may be tempted to use whomever, thinking “whomever will listen” is the object of “talk to.” After all, “she will talk to him” makes sense. However, “whoever will listen” is a clause and whoever is the subject of “will listen.” Who will listen? He will listen. Therefore, whoever is correct.

Example: We left it outside for whoever wants it.
Again, “whoever wants it” is a clause, with whoever being the subject of “wants.” “He wants it” makes sense.

Don’t let parenthetical phrases throw you off. Asides such as “I said,” “she thinks,” and “we believe” are separate clauses.

Example: I felt used by someone who I thought was sincere.
It may be tempting to think it should be “whom I thought” but whom is not the object of “I thought.” Instead, who is the subject of “was.” One way to test this is by putting “I thought” at the end of the clause: someone whom was sincere, I thought. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, who is the correct word.

*      *      *

I hope this post made it clear when to use who and when to use whom. If you still don’t get it but care, feel free to leave your questions in the comments below and I will try to help you. Also, try reading some of the pages that I’ve linked below for more explanations and examples. If you were confused by all this and don’t want to bother, don’t worry, since the distinction between the two is starting to fade. Besides, you can try to get around it by rephrasing the sentence without the relative pronoun.

I tried my best to ensure that the examples were accurate, but if you do find an error, I would appreciate it if you kindly pointed that out.

Sources and further reading
http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/who-versus-whom-advanced
http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/whoVwhom.asp
http://web.ku.edu/~edit/whom.html
http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/062802WhoWhom.htm
http://www.proofreadnow.com/blog/bid/79918/Who-and-Whom-Whoever-and-Whomever
http://www.dailywritingtips.com/how-do-you-determine-whether-to-use-who-or-whom/

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13 thoughts on “Who vs Whom

  1. I was taught that the object takes precedence, even if that object is subject in its own clause — thus, “I will pick whomever [finishes first],” or [She will talk to whomever [will listen] — if you leave off the rest of the clause the sentence is correct, and it then remains correct if you add to the clause.

    Also, a sentence should never end in a preposition. For example, “Whom do you have a crush on?” needs to be reworked to “On whom do you have a crush.” May dad used a classic example of a bad sentence for this rule — a kid who was sick in bed upstairs asked his mom to bring a book upstairs and read to him. When she got there with the book, he asked her, “Why did you bring this book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for.”

    • I haven’t seen that the object takes precedence. What I wrote was derived from all the explanations I found. That may be why there is disagreement on this. The reality is, people will understand what you mean, whichever word you use.

      It’s a myth that a sentence should never end in a preposition. This “rule” came from 17th and 18th century grammarians trying to make English more like Latin.

      There are cases when a preposition at the end of the sentence is unnecessary or doesn’t make sense, (e.g. “Where are you at?” The “at” is unnecessary). However, in this example, “crush on” is a prepositional verb so the preposition should not be separated from the verb. Perhaps it was not the best example because it’s informal. I was trying to come up with memorable examples. “On whom do you have a crush?” sounds awkward and no one really talks that way.

    • “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!”

      If you do a quick Google search of “end sentence with a preposition,” every single response will state that it is not a hard and fast rule, and never was one, except in the minds of one stuffy 17th Century academic who wanted to force Latin sentence structure onto a Germanic language. http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/grammar-myths-prepositions/ is one of the better explanations.

      Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1:
      “The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
      No traveller returns, puzzles the will
      And makes us rather bear those ills we have
      Than fly to others that we know not of?”

      If it was good enough for Billy S., it should be good enough for anyone.

  2. I was taught the same as slmret. I still teach it’s incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. To me, acceptance doesn’t make it correct. Just my two cents because I’m not a grammar nazi though I do prefer correct grammar and often correct those close to me. 😉

    • Acceptance doesn’t make it correct for me, either. That’s why it bugs me when people say “lay down” as a command or “you want it to lay flat.” Those clearly don’t make sense. However, the meaning isn’t changed when a preposition is at the end of a sentence and sometimes there isn’t a more natural way to phrase it. For example, how else would you say “he had no one to play with?”

  3. I think I’m going to bookmark this page. I have a page with the conjugations for lie/lay bookmarked as well. I think I’ve basically gotten down when to use them in the present test, but I get confused when it’s past. I honestly don’t recall ever learning the difference between who and whom in school as a kid.

    Thanks for posting it! 🙂

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