Who vs. Whom

By Maeve Maddox

No doubt about it, the pronoun whom is in its death throes.

If you need a refresher, here’s the difference: Who is the subject form of the pronoun, so it’s the doer of an action, as in “That’s the man who climbed Everest.” (subject of “climbed”). Whom is the object form of the pronoun, so it receives the action, as in “Whom do you like best?” (object of “like”).

Most grammarians agree that English speakers can get along just fine by using who for both subject and object, as we do with the pronoun you:

You light up my life. (subject)
I love you. (object)

An entrenched idiom like “to whom it may concern” will probably stick around for a while longer. Speakers for whom the who/whom distinction comes naturally will continue to use both forms. Even speakers who use who as an object may continue to use whom when it stands immediately after a preposition, but for the most part, the use of who for whom is a non-issue.

The use of whom for who, however, is another matter.

A great many speakers–including professional news reporters–fall into what I call the something-between trap. When something–a subordinate clause or a stock phrase like “in my opinion”–comes between the subject pronoun and its verb, the writer may stumble and use whom instead of who.

Observe the problem in the following examples.

1. The heroine is teen-aged Frenchy Hercules, whom one suspects is the director’s wife,

2. A Chicago man whom police believe is responsible for 11 burglaries to sheds and garages in the village is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 24 on theft charges, authorities said.

3. Fire personnel radioed deputies to stop the driver, whom, according to reports, appeared to have been under the influence of intoxicants.

4. Before we started coming to BBBA, I [had] taken him to numerous pitching and hitting coaches whom in my opinion were out for the money and not the overall improvement of my son’s baseball ability.

In each example, the whom should be who.

If the errors jumped out at you as soon as you read the sentences, you may as well stop reading now. If you’re not quite sure why these uses of whom are incorrect, read on.

Whom is an object form–like him–but in each of these sentences, the whom being used as the subject of a verb. Who is the subject form.

Writers can avoid falling into the something-between trap with whom by taking a close look at all the verbs.

Because whom can only be an object, eliminate all the subjects first. Determine which subject word goes with which verb.

1. The heroine is teen-aged Frenchy Hercules, whom one suspects is the director’s wife.
This sentence contains three verbs: is, suspects, and is.
The subject of the first is is “heroine.”
The subject of suspects is “one.”
The subject of the second is is “who” (not whom).
The in-between trap is “one suspects.”
NOTE: the verb “suspects” is what tripped the writer up. In another context, suspects. could be used transitively: He’s the man whom the detective suspects. In this sentence, suspects has no object.

2. A Chicago man whom police believe is responsible for 11 burglaries to sheds and garages in the village is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 24 on theft charges, authorities said.
This sentence contains four finite verbs: believe, is responsible, is scheduled, and said.
The subject of believe is “police.”
The subject of is responsible is “who” (not whom).
The subject of is scheduled is “A Chicago man.”
The subject of said is “authorities.”
NOTE: The in-between trap is “police believe.” In another context, “believe” could take an object, but not here.

3. Fire personnel radioed deputies to stop the driver, whom, according to reports, appeared to have been under the influence of intoxicants.
This sentence contains two finite verbs: radioed and appeared.
The subject of radioed is “Fire personnel.”
The subject of appeared is “who” (not whom).
The in-between trap is “according to reports.”

4. Before we started coming to BBBA, I [had] taken him to numerous pitching and hitting coaches whom in my opinion were out for the money and not the overall improvement of my son’s baseball ability.
This sentence contains three finite verbs: started, had taken, and were.
The subject of started is “we.”
The subject of had taken is “I.”
The subject of were is “who” (not whom).
The in-between trap is “in my opinion.”

If all this seems like too much grammar to deal with, there’s a second option for avoiding the something-between trap with whom. Stick with who. (Now isn’t that an interesting construction!)

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5 Responses to “Who vs. Whom”

  • Aaron David

    Nice informative piece. On a similar subject; the misuse of “whilst” drives me potty! “While” refers specifically to time; I waited outside while my wife got ready inside. “Whilst” means “whereas”; I waited outside whilst my wife waited inside.

  • venqax

    In American English, whilst is a mistaken spelling of whist, which is in turn a mistaken card game. Why do you keep and feed such a horribly antiquated word? It’s not as bad as calling your mother “mum”, but almost. Same with amongst. Do you still use betwixt, as welst? Perhapst there ist some royal tradition attached to terminal st’s. Doest thou knowest?

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Whist” is not a “mistaken” card game, but rather an obsolete card game. Whist was a forerunner of bridge.

    In the English translations of AROUND THE WORD IN EIGHTY DAYS (Jules Verne), Phineas Fogg and his pals or acquaintances play a lot of whist. People do not play whist anymore because it has been superceeded by bridge.

    This is just like the case of people’s not playing “rounders” anymore because rounders was taken over by baseball.

    I am still disappointed that baseball was dropped from the events of the Summer Olympics of 2012. As the home team, the British would have been guaranteed a team in the tournament.
    I was looking forward to seeing the British team (made up of cricket players?) being routed by the Americans, Australians, Canadians, Cubans, Japanese, Koreans, Mexicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans. Taiwanese, and Venezuelans – and maybe by the Dutch, too.

    Also, the British women would have had no chance of winning games at softball, too.

    Dale

  • Dale A. Wood

    Huh? Quoting:
    “He’s the man whom the detective suspects. In this sentence, ‘suspects’ has no object.”

    Well, suspects does have and object. The dependent clause says, “The detective suspects whom,” but with the words rearranged to put “whom” by its antecedent, “man”.

    Why hasn’t anyone noticed this before?
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    I think you mean whist has been superseded by bridge. Originally bridges superseded rivers because they went “over” them. Then it became “replaced”. Not replaced the rivers but the meaning of the word was replaced by replaced. I still like bridges. That reminds me of the Bridges of Madison County and Jeff Bridges. One is a movie and one is an actor but the actor was not in the movie. They do not play whist in the movie, or even in the book which is older than than the movie. I don’t know if Jeff Bridges plays whist. That would be confusing.

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