Who vs. Whom
Downloadable version: Who vs. Whom
Overview: Relative pronouns, such as who and whom, can be tricky because many writers are unclear about the specific rules regarding their use. Students often decide to completely eliminate whom from their vocabulary simply because they don’t understand how and when to use it. This handout will go over when to use each pronoun in different types of sentences and also give quick tips for remembering their different functions.
Who vs. Whom: The Basics
Who and whom are both relative pronouns, which means that they function to connect a clause to the rest of a sentence. In other words, relative pronouns are found in sentences that contain more than one clause, and they relate to a specific word or phrase that they modify. Who and whom are usually used only in relation to people. In the following example, who relates to “an instructor,” and introduces the relative clause “who was the recipient of an award.”
- Last semester I took a class with an instructor who was the recipient of an award.
Subject and Object Pronouns
When deciding whether to use who or whom, it is important to first recognize that who is used in reference to the subject of a sentence, and whom is used in reference to the object of a sentence. The subject is what performs the action in the sentence, and the object is the receiver of the action. Therefore, who relates to “he,” “she,” and “we” while whom relates to the pronouns “him,” “her,” and “us.” In the following sentence, whom is the object of “cared for,” while “Michael” is the subject.
- I ran into Alicia last night, whom Michael cared for deeply.
(If this still sounds confusing, try to reword the clause with “her”: “Michael cared for her”)
This also goes for questions that begin with who or whom. Again, if you are not sure what acts as the subject or object in the clause, rephrase the question as a statement, replacing who/whom with he or him, and see which one fits. Take a look at the examples below:
- Who ate my candy bar? He ate my candy bar.
- Whom did you have in mind for the new job listing? I had him in mind for the new job listing.
Compound Forms of Who/Whom
Who and whom function in the same way in their compound forms, whoever and whomever.
- Whoever volunteers to cover my shift is a great friend. (Whoever is the subject of “volunteers”)
- I support whomever you choose for the part. (Whomever is the object of “you choose”)
Practice: Because whom is so uncommonly used in everyday speech, many consider its usage too formal, especially for a conversational-like narrative, such as a casual email or journal entry. Therefore, the usage of who where whom belongs is often overlooked because of our normal interpretation of the English language. However, when writing in an academic setting, you should strive to always maintain the most correct grammar usage even if it varies from how you would phrase the sentence in a normal conversation with friends. Remember, most academic writing is formal, so your sentence construction and word choices should reflect that. Review one of your essays. Examine every time you use the word “who,” and make sure that it’s the subject of the sentence and not the object. If it is the object of the sentence, be sure to change it to “whom.”