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.

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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

Lie vs Lay

Recently, I’ve seen and heard too many incidences of lay and lie being misused so I had to say something. I will do my best to explain the difference between the two and when each should be used.

Here are some examples of incorrect usage, followed by the proper word:

  • Medical professionals: “I need you to lay down for me.” No, you need me to lie down for you.
  • People talking: “I was laying in bed last night when….” No, you were lying in bed last night.
  • The news: “The suspect was found laying at the bottom of a boat.” No, he was found lying at the bottom of a boat.
  • As much as I like this song, it should be “I’m sick of lying down alone.”

So, what’s the correct usage?

The verb to lie, when used in the sense of reclining (as opposed to not telling the truth), is an intransitive verb, meaning it is used without an object. On the other hand, lay means to put or place something down, and requires a direct object because it is a transitive verb. For example, you lie down on the bed. He lays the cards on the table. (The cards being the direct object.) In the words of Grammar Girl, “you lay something down, and people lie down by themselves.”

If you find yourself wanting to use lay but aren’t sure if it should be lie, you can first ask yourself “lay what?” If the answer is yourself or another person, then you must mention who is being laid. (Hence, “Now I lay me down to sleep” is correct because “me” is the object.) If there isn’t anything to lay, then the word to use is lie. (“Now I lie down to sleep.)

This site has another tip to help you decide between lay or lie. Substitute the disputed word with a form of the verb “place,” and if it makes sense, use a form of lay.

Now it gets complicated because the past tense of lie is lay. Note that the past tense of lay is laid, (NOT layed, which only exists as a misspelled word). It’s not a mistake in the table below: both the past tense and past participle of lay is laid.

Present tense Past tense Past Participle Present participle
lie lay lain lying
lay laid laid laying

Examples of Lie Conjugated

  • Past tense: After I lay down, the phone rang.
  • Past participle: The corpulent man had lain on the couch for hours, until his wife scolded him.
  • Present participle: I am lying on my side as I write this.

Examples of Lay Conjugated

  • Past tense: She laid the sequins in a pattern on the shirt before she sewed them in place.
  • Past participle: That is one of the most amazing pictures that I have laid my eyes on.
  • Present participle: He was carefully laying each tile in place, when he lost his balance and fell on his work.

If you would like to see more examples, a quick Google search for “lay vs lie” will turn up many helpful websites.

There’s no need to feel guilty if you’ve been using these words incorrectly. Just learn to use them correctly. I know my grammar isn’t perfect, so I appreciate it when people kindly point out my errors.