How Do You Determine Whether to Use Who or Whom?

By Mark Nichol

Even the boldest, most confident writers can cower in fear and sob with frustration when confronted with the problem of whether to use who or whom in a sentence. Heck, I know it confuses me.

Here’s the distinction: Use who to refer to the subject of the sentence (“I am the person who you are looking for”) and whom to refer to the object of the sentence (“Whom have you invited?”)

If you’re still unsure about which form to use in a sentence, try this test: Restate the sentence with a personal pronoun, or, if it is a question, answer the question with one word. If the personal pronoun in the restatement or response is he or she, who is correct. If it’s him or her, whom is correct.

Statement: “I have a friend who can help.”
Restatement: “He can help.” (Who is correct.)

Question: “Whom have you invited?”
Response: “Him.” (Whom is correct.)

Note, however, that sometimes you can avoid the problem of determining which form to use by omitting a relative pronoun altogether, and the result is often an improvement. For example, the sentence “I am the person who you are looking for” is better rendered as “I am the person you are looking for.”

Also, beware of these pitfalls: “They’ll complain to whoever [not whomever] will listen” is correct, because whoever is the subject of “will listen.” However, “Whomever [not whoever] you hire is fine with me” is correct because whomever is the object of hire.

Furthermore, use of whom in a sentence such as “It was Smith and Jones whom we had to contend with” is a hypercorrection. (“It was Smith and Jones who we had to contend with” is correct, though the sentence is better with the pronoun omitted: “It was Smith and Jones we had to contend with.”) Append a phrase containing the same pronoun to realize how awkward this form is. (“It was Smith and Jones whom we had to contend with, whom some among us feared.”)

These complications, and others, make traditional rules regarding use of whom problematic; when even experienced writers have to repeatedly pore through a grammar text to remind themselves about the details, the distinction has ceased to be practical. The fusty who/whom distinction is fading in conversational usage, and it is my fervent hope that the use of whom except in unambiguous “to whom” constructions will likewise atrophy.

I’ll let legendary language maven William Safire have the last word: Of this issue, he said, in effect, when the question of whether to use whom or who arises, revise the sentence so that you don’t have to puzzle over which form is correct.

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26 Responses to “How Do You Determine Whether to Use Who or Whom?”

  • Gordon Havens

    Excellent posting. Well-written and valuable. A keeper.

  • Dan Erickson

    Who and whom can be a challenge, but my biggest hurdle is the lay, lie, laid dilemma. Maybe you can do a post on that in the near future.

  • Mike Szczepanik

    In your second paragraph, in the example “I am the person who you are looking for,” isn’t the relative pronoun actually the object of the preposition “for,” which would make it “I am the person whom you are looking for”? It’s easier to see if we move “for” before the pronoun: “I am the person for whom you are looking.” The same goes for the example “It was Smith and Jones whom we had to contend with”–the pronoun is the object of the preposition “with,” so “whom” is correct. I agree with you and Safire: the sooner “who” becomes acceptable in almost all cases (pun intended), the better.

  • Ellen

    Hello.

    Yes, likewise, this example requires “whom”:

    “It was Smith and Jones whom we had to contend with.”

    We can test this by asking, “We had to contend with whom?”

    I do like Mark’s suggestion to eliminate the relative pronoun.

    I appreciate the challenge presented by examples designed to illustrate points of grammar. Its’ easy to get lost in the maze of explanations.

    –Ellen

  • Bob

    Who does things to Whom.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I’m astonished to learn that professional writers and those who would like to be professional writers are often baffled by the who/whom question. This is fifth-grade grammar.

    “Whom” is used not only as the object of the predicate (not “object of the sentence”), but also as object of a preposition, i.e., its use is limited to the objective case.

    The sentence “I am the person who you are looking for” is incorrect from the getgo in that “who” should be “whom.” It doesn’t need to be changed dramatically, just made grammatical, e.g., “I’m the person for whom you’re looking.”

    “It was Smith and Jones who we had to contend with” in absolutely incorrect. It should be written “It was Smith and Jones with whom we had to contend.” The entire example is rather poorly conceived, particularly the appended phrase. Rather than write “It was Smith and Jones whom we had to contend with, whom some among us feared,” write “It was Smith and Jones, feared by some among us, with whom we had to contend.”

    Who/whom is not a “fusty” distinction; it is an educated distinction. More and more nowadays, those who aren’t as well educated as they imagine they are and as they wish others to deem them, dismiss as “fusty” those centuries-old conventions that they haven’t mastered rather than admit to themselves and their public that they aren’t as authoritative as they’d like others to think they are. It’s almost as if they say, “If I don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing.”

    Experienced writers might indeed have problems with who/whom; good writers don’t have such problems. As for Safire’s advice, he knew his audience, i.e., those who ultimately paid to read what he wrote. It was always easier to comfort the forlorn than to hold them to a standard higher than that imposed on fifth-graders.

  • Danielle

    When I was a sophomore in high school, my teacher taught us the S-L-A-P / N-N-O-O technique.

    S = Subject ————>Nominative (Who)
    L = Linking Verb ———–>Nominative (Who)
    A = Action Verb ————->Objective (Whom)
    P = Preposition ————–>Objective (Whom)

    To this day, I use this diagram.

  • Mike Mellor

    This is one of the extremely rare cases where having studied Latin pays off.

    “Whom” is the dative and ablative form of “who.”

    Use “whom” with the prepositions to, by, for, and with.

    This applies only to written English. For spoken English, unless you’re a member of the British Royal Family, feel free to eliminate “whom” from your vocabulary.

    I speak “good” English and I would never say, “I am the person for whom you are looking.”

    I often break the rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition and would say, “I’m the person who you’re looking for.” In fact I’d leave out the “who” entirely: “I’m the person you’re looking for.”

    Oddly enough, “whom” is far more popular among Americans than among the British. If you see a writer using the word “whomever,” it’s either a 19th-century Englishman or an American, lol!

  • Gregory Bryce

    I take hypercorrection to mean trying so hard to be correct that one uses construction that in the particular case is wrong.

    >>Furthermore, use of whom in a sentence such as “It was Smith and Jones whom we had to contend with” is a hypercorrection. (“It was Smith and Jones who we had to contend with” is correct, …”<<

    Like others, I'd say there is no hypercorrection in that first sentence. It is perfectly correct; "whom" is the object of the pronoun "with."

    "Whom" is certainly being used less and less, and may soon be declared dead. Some may grieve its passing, while many won't. But it ain't dead yet.

  • Mark Nichol

    I apologize for the erroneous example, pointed out to me by several readers in the comments and others in email messages, and I thank them for the clarification. As I mentioned, I have difficulty with this topic, and I should have researched it more thoroughly before writing about it.

  • Gregory Bryce

    Should have taken the time to proofread my post.

    I wrote:
    >>Like others, I’d say there is no hypercorrection in that first sentence. It is perfectly correct; “whom” is the object of the pronoun “with.”<<

    Of course, I meant «…is the object of the PREPOSITION "with."»

  • Dale A. Wood

    The distinction in English is easy, and the explanations in the article are overblown and often incorrect. I will go to a simple rebuke: Shame on you, Mark Nichol.
    The short, sweet explanation:
    “Who” is in the subjective case in its clause.
    “Whom” is in the objective case in its clause.

    The meaning of subjective case should be obvious.
    In English, the objective case is used for these:
    1. Direct objects.
    2. Objects of prepositions.
    3. Indirect objects.
    For an example of number three: “You gave WHOM all of the candy in the house!?” I emphasized WHOM for the additional reason of spoken emphasis. Perhaps WHOM refers to the 350 pound bum in the neighborhood.

    In languages like Latin and German, there are additional cases for various objects – cases that English disposed of a long time ago, thank goodness. The three cases in English are subjective, objective, and possessive. German has cases that corresponds to all of these, plus the “dative case”, which is used for indirect objects and as the objectives of certain pronouns.
    Latin has cases that correspond to all for of these, plus one called the “ablative case” that I never understood and I don’t want to.
    From what I have read, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polise have even more cases than these for nouns and pronouns.

    Let’s just be thankful that English is in the reasonable place where it is. On the other hand, in most dialects of Chinese, nouns and pronouns do not have any cases, and verbs are not conjugated! Chinese also does not have the equivalents of {a, an, the}. This is why people where “false Chinese” sentences like:
    “Confucius say: man who live in glass house throw few stones,” and
    “Confucius say: man who live in glass house hang lot of curtains.”

    We did not decline or conjugate anything except that we did put the “s” on “stones” and the “s” on “curtains”. In reality, Chinese does not have singular or plural nouns or pronouns.
    Everything like that is done with adjectives and adverbs.
    D.A.W.

  • Mark Nichol

    Matt:

    In my previous comment, I thanked those, including you, who strove to help me and others understand this topic, but I’d prefer that you follow the example of almost every other person who comments on this site and be more courteous. I don’t like criticism any more than anyone else, but I accept it as a necessary component to self-improvement. Your comments, however, are caustic rather than constructive, and it is difficult for me to do so with good grace.

    Your fervent defense of the who/whom distinction is admirable, but speakers and writers of English are slowly but inexorably eliminating whom from all but the most obvious usage (“to whom”). I applaud this development because I see no practical use for the distinction, no significance to the signal, and I’ll write around it when possible, and do so with a clear conscience.

  • Dale A. Wood

    We could also make up silly sentences like, “You gave WHOM all of the marijuana in the house!?” (or “all of the money”)

    There is another problem with relative pronouns, and the same thing is true in English and in German (with slightly-different words).
    “Which” is the relative pronoun for inanimate objects and also for extract entities like companies, corporations, countries, states, counties, crews, groups, set, teams, and staffs. For a specific example, a team is a “which” and not a “who”. Likewise, an air force, an army, or a navy is a “which” and not a “who” **.

    For example, “Cisco Systems, Inc., which is located in California,” and NOT “Cisco Systems, Inc., who are located in California.”

    “Which” is unchanged between the subjective case and the objective case, and which is also unchanged between singular and plural.
    Now, what is the possessive case of “which”? It might be hard to think of it, but the possessive case is “whose”. For example:
    “The car whose radiator is cracked is leaking radiator fluid all over the floor of the garage.”

    In German, the relative pronoun that corresponds to “which” is “welch”, and “welch” is both subjective and objective, and both singular and plural. Its possessive case is “wessen”, which corresponds to “whose”.
    To further complicate things, “welch” has a dative case, too. As best as I recall, the precise form of the dative case depends on the gender of the antecedent: masculine, feminine, or neuter.

    **In British writings, I have seen such abominations as “the RAF, who are searching for the lost mariners in the North Sea…” Who??

    “Who’s on first, what’s on second, and I don’t know’s on third!”
    Costello: “Who’s on first?” Abbot: “Who!”

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have just notice my own error in typing “Polise” instead of “Polish”.
    “mea maxima culpa!” (More Latin)

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Mark Nichol:
    I think that the comment by Matt Gaffney is perfectly courteous, and I would walk barefooted over hot coals to defend him on that one.

    I used to be a college teacher in several different technical areas, but I often tempered my criticism of my students with some humor. (I also told them that my telling them where they went wrong was part of my job.) My students also had to do a good deal of writing in the form of various kinds of reports.

    On one test that I gave, I put some really simple questions, as was my habit. (I thought that it was unfair to make all of them hard ones.) About 3/4 of my class completely missed one of the really simple ones. So, I asked these students, “Did you go on a trip to outer space before this test – and leave your brains on Pluto?”
    This observation evoked a big wave of laughter, and several of my students conceded then and there, “We all had brain farts on that one!” (That was the language of college students then. Maybe it still is.)

    I always believed in asking my students some questions about the basics of any subject that I was teaching – because I believe that the basics are so, so important. I also told them that the basics are extremely important.

    The distinction between subjective case, objective case, and possessive case is so, so basic and important in English, and actually for all of the Western European languages. (Probably for the Eastern European and Semitic languages, too.) This is something that should be hammered into students in elementery, middle, and high schools. (probably “whipped” into them, too). If English teachers everywhere are not doing this, and doing it consistently, then shame on them. Shame on the colleges of education, too.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    A favorite example of mine of the use of the regular objective case and the dative case in German. These sentences also include some German idioms.
    1. Ich fahre mit dem Fahrrad in die Schule.
    2. Ich fahre mit dem Fahrrad in der Schule.
    In German, all nouns and some of the pronouns are always capitalized. The only pronoun above is “ich” = “I”.
    “Fahrrad” = “bicycle” and “Schule” = “school”, of course.
    “die Schule” is in the objective case, and “der Schule” is in the dative case”.
    Now: “Ich fahre mit dem Fahrrad in die Schule,” means “I am riding my bicycle to school.” Sensible.
    However, with the change to the dative case, “Ich fahre mit dem Fahrrad in der Schule,” means “I am riding my bicycle around inside the school.”

    So, after having had his bicycle taken away and being caned by the headmaster, the student would have to say, “Ich gehe zu Fuss nach Hause,” where “Fuss” means “foot”, and “Hause” means “house” or home”. This sentence is also very idiomatic, and I won’t explain it.
    It means, “I am walking home.”
    In English, this sentence is not idiomatic at all, and it is a simple one with a subject, a verb (in the progressive mode), and a direct object.
    Among many other differences, German lacks the progressive mode. This languages gets around that by using the context and adverbs.
    To people like me who grew up on English, this sounds odd.

    When it comes to moods in the language, English and German have all the same ones:
    indicative mood, interrogatory mood, imperative mood, and subjunctive mood.
    By the way, declarative sentence are written in the indicative mood or the imperative mood.
    [One time when I told my college students that something had to be in the imperative mood, I might as well have been speaking GREEK. Unfortunately, they did not know the terminology of grammar, or of mathematics either: the Associative Law, the Commutative Law, the Distributive Law, the Additive Inverse, the Multiplicative Inverse, the Additive Identity, and the Multiplicative Identity. I told them that if they could not understand and use the words, they did not understand the subject, either.]

    On the other hand, Russian and the other Slavic languages have even more moods than the Western European languages do, and it all sounds mind-boggling to me. Furthermore, I have read that the grammar of the northern Slavic languages is more complicated than that of the southern Slavic languages (why?). This means that languages like Russian, Lithuanian, and Polish are more complicated to use and to understand than are these languages: Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian, and Slovenian.
    I am uncertain about Czech and Slovakian.

    The languages of Greek and Albanian are independent of all of these, and independent of Latin, too. On the other hand, Romanian is a Romance Language, and it is related to Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and a few minor languages.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    English is a hot language.
    To give you a few examples:
    The model Petra Nemcova grew up speaking Czech and Slovakian, and she learned to speak Italian while she was working in Milan, Italy. Next, she learned to speak English while she was working in England, the U.S.A., and Canada.
    In her autobiography, Petra said that English is by far her most favorite language.

    The author Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was born in Russia, but his family emigrated to New York City when he was only two years old. His parents could speak Russian, but they did not teach him any. He grew up speaking Yiddish and English fluently. Asimov wrote that English is a far better language than Yiddish is, and they he would never consider writing a book or a short story in Yiddish.
    Also, Asimov wrote nearly 500 books and (nearly) countless articles, essays, short stories, book reviews, etc., all in English.

    I have a close friend and colleague (with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering), who was born and raised in Malaysia, but all four of his grandparents had immigrated there from southeastern India. His parents were born in Malaysia, too, back in the 1940s. At home, his family spoke mostly Telugu, an important language of southeastern India**. However, he never learned to read or write it. (Telugu also uses a different alphabet.) At school and around the town in Malaysia, everyone spoke the Malaysian language, and he is completely fluent at that. Then for college, he moved to Illinois – even for his B.S. – but his English that he had learned in school in Malaysia was incomprehensible! So, he had to learn to speak English practically from scratch, even though he could understand it at college.

    He has lived in the United States for a couple of decades now, and he is an American citizen. He has told me that English is by far his favorite language, and that he even THINKS in English. He has to mentally “shift gears” to speak Malaysian or Telugu. I have met his parents, and his sisterm too, and his father and sister speak English well, but his mother less so.

    His mother flew over from Malaysia to live with him for six months – and her favorite place to go shopping? The Wal-Mart Superstore, of course. They do not have anything similar to that in Malaysia.

    **In southeastern India, the two most important languages are Malayalam and Telugu, both spoken by over 60 million people apiece. Neither one of these is related to Hindi, Bengali, or Sanskrit.
    In contrast, Hindi, Bengali, Sanskrit, English, and nearly all of the European languages are related to each other in significant ways.
    One of the exceptions is Basque, which does not seem to be related to any other living language at all.

    Also, notice the word “Malayalam”. It is palindromic!
    Of course, the best and most important palindromic word of all is “radar”. If you don’t see it, I can explain it to you.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    Sigh. Again, I’m left out in the cold here. I feel like those people who say, “I can’t define ‘pornography,’ but I know it when I see it!” Well, I can’t make heads or tails of any of this grammar stuff, even Danielle’s SLAP/NNOO technique. But I can speak good English, and I still use who/whom when appropriate, and I’m still cowed into not putting the preposition at the end of the sentence. What I mean is, I still say, “For whom are you looking?” and “To whom do you wish to speak?” and so forth. I wish I could get the grammar stuff into my head, but I must have missed the golden hour when the human brain is open to absorbing these things. Maybe it was the week in second grade when I was absent with the mumps. I am as ready as anyone, however, to do away with “whomever.” The interesting thing is that when I started studying esperanto, I was doing fine, until the chapter when they introduced this subject/object thing. In esperanto, it is crucial to know which is which, because word ORDER is unimportant, as long as the object is identified by an “N” at the end (example: When “dog” is the subject of the sentence, use hundo. When “dog” is the object of the sentence, use hundon). Sadly, my inability to apply this concept has been a stumbling block in my ability to really get fluent in the language. It is on my bucket list! Thanks for trying, guys!!

  • Matt Gaffney

    @Mark:

    I’m sorry you found my criticism discourteous. Criticism is neither courteous nor discourteous—it’s either valid or invalid. I think my criticism was valid.

    When you wrote about who/whom, you implied that you knew what you were talking about and that others should take your teachings (for want of a better word) as correct. Some of those teachings were incorrect and I criticized them.

    You then offered your opinion re the necessity of “whom” in some contexts and you implied that it’s all right to end a sentence with a preposition. I criticized both your opinion and your implication.

    I did not criticize you personally, but I did criticize your mistaken teaching and I did criticize what I deem as your flawed opinion re the necessity of “whom” and your implication that it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition.

    I felt I needed to rebuff your mistaken instructions and opinions as robustly as you presented them to impressionable readers. Your readers need to be aware that, despite your many useful and instructive articles, you aren’t flawless and that, in re who/whom, you dropped the ball.

    If we were sitting across from one another sharing a pitcher of beer rather than posting in a forum, I doubt I would have criticized you as vigorously; however, I would still have criticized you and probably stuck you will the bar bill. You’ve got a good mind and a very imaginative blog. I suppose the lapse I perceived in your who/whom article disappointed me and, perhaps, fueled my criticism subconsciously.

  • Precise edit

    Subject of a verb, use “who”
    Everything else, use “whom”

  • Curtis

    Bob nailed the whole thing in five words.

  • Jon

    Whilst I do generally try to avoid ending sentences with prepositions, there are some constructs up with which I will not put.

  • thebluebird11

    @Jon: Well put 😉

  • venqax

    Says MN speakers and writers of English are slowly but inexorably eliminating whom from all but the most obvious usage (“to whom”). I applaud this development because I see no practical use for the distinction,

    I agree. If there were (was– another thorn) a use, we’d also have to be cautious of what and wham.

  • YuKon

    @D.A.W.
    Hey, Dale!… A couple of words on justifiable deployment of more cases in Slavic languages (which you have found “mind-boggling”).

    I’m from Ukraine and grew up hearing, learning, and reading in Russian and Ukrainian. Russian has six cases and Ukrainian seven (we have vocative case in addition to those six that there are in the Russian language). And as for a native speaker such a number of cases have never seemed perplexing to me, rather natural and just as many as needed.

    Even though I do like English for its wealth of vocabulary, flexibility, nuances of multiple tenses, etc. I believe that, unlike in Ukrainian, in English you always need to pay more attention to the context of the entire passage to understand what author wants to impart.

    For example, depending on whether you address a person by his or her name or just say their name, in Ukrainian you would need to conjugate that person’s name to make your message more understandable; English does not admit of it.

    Or, for instance, a response to a statement A: “She should know that she can always be replaced”, B: “She?” would be ambiguous in that it is not clear to what that response out of surprise “she?” is related (EITHER a person questioning someone else’s statement is sure that “she” definitely knows that a proper replacement can be found for her OR that person is doubtful that “she” can be anyhow replaced; perhaps, she has some qualities that you cannot merely come across). In Ukrainian that would be a no-brainer, because “she?” would be conjugated to avoid misunderstanding or save the need to clarify.

    Nevertheless, many of grammatical complications are practically unnecessary due to no deeper meaning that such complications can add to someone’s message. After all, you can assure yourself of it by reading about Ukrainian or Russian on wikipedia.

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