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Who…or Whom? Who! No, Whom? Right?

By Andy Hill

Many writers have difficulty determining the appropriate uses of “who” and “whom.” Some always use “who,” because they are unsure of the rules and are more familiar with it than “whom.” Others overuse “whom,” perhaps in attempts to sound intelligent, but fall short if anyone who knows these rules is within earshot. The good news is that this is a relatively easy dilemma to overcome and can be understood fairly quickly by viewing it from a couple of helpful perspectives.  

In an installation of “The Writer’s Dig” on the website, Writer’s Digest, Brian Klems offers a clear explanation of the scenario from a grammatical point of view:

Who is used as the subject of a verb or complement of a linking verb. It’s a nominative pronoun. It was Carl who broke all the pencils in the house. When writing a sentence, first find the verb(s)—was and broke. Then, find the subject for each verb: Carl and who. Since who is a subject, it’s correct. Who needs a crayon to write this down?

Whom is used as the object of the verb or the object of a preposition. It’s an objective pronoun. You asked whom to the dance? In this case, the subject and verb are “You asked.” The pronoun following the verb is the object of the verb, therefore whom is correct. He’s already going to the prom with whom? This pronoun is the object of the preposition with, so whom is the right pick. Be careful, though. Make sure the prepositional pronoun in question isn’t also a subject—if it is, then you use who. For example, I cheered for who played hardest. While the pronoun follows a preposition (for), it’s also the subject of the second verb (played). When placed as a subject, always use who.

With a general understanding of how these words work on a grammatical level, it’s time to consider these terms from more of a linguistic perspective.  

When we consider the words with which “who” and “whom” have roots in common, we can gain a clearer understanding of how they function and why they work the way they do.  In order to do so, we need to begin by taking into account the third-person subject pronouns: “he,” “she,” and “they.” Upon examination, one might notice their linguistic similarity: They all have an “h” followed by an “e,” without being followed by a consonant.  

Now, let’s consider “who,” which follows this same rule, but has an “o,” instead of an “e.” Knowing “who” is a subject pronoun, one can make use of its similarity to these other third-person subject pronouns in remembering how it functions, using it interchangeably with these words in a sentence as a litmus test.  

Since “whom” is an object pronoun, it logically follows that we can examine, accordingly, the following third-person object pronouns: “him,” “her,” and “them.” With the exception of “her,” these words contain a vowel followed by and ending with an “m,” as does “whom.” We know “her” works like “him,” so this linguistic connection between these words and “whom” can serve us in determining which word to use in a given sentence. Why? Because any place “whom” works, so will “her,” “him,” and “them.”

For instance: You could be trying to determine whether you need to say “Whom went to the beach,” or “Who went to the beach.” We could replace the word in question with the subject pronoun, “she,”: “She went to the beach.” Now, compare that to using the object pronoun, “her,”: “Her went to the beach.” Since “her” doesn’t sound right (and is grammatically incorrect), we know it must be a subject; therefore, “who” would be the right choice.  

Whenever you are working with your writing, even a basic grammar rule like who vs. whom, the consultants in the University Writing Center are here to help you find the solutions that exist but with which you may not be confidence or familiar.  

Klems, Brian A. “The Writer’s Dig.” Writer’s Digest. 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.