Beware of “Whom”

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I just read a mystery by Sue Grafton in which her character Kinsey Millhone mentally corrects a maid who responds to her phone call by asking “Who may I say is calling?”

The Millhone character thinks “Whom, sweetheart, Whom shall I say is calling…”

This passage illustrates the fact that even an excellent writer can have trouble with when to use who and when to use whom.

In this case, the maid was right and the detective was wrong. If you want to know why, read on.

Like most pronouns, who has two forms: a subject form, who, and an object form, whom.

To understand the use of pronoun pairs such as who/whom, he/him, she/her, I/me, they/them, and we/us when used with a verb, one must recognize whether the word is being used as the subject of the verb or as its object.

Every verb has a subject. The subject is the doer of an action:
I sing.
We shop in town.
Who knows the secret?

Some verbs have objects. The object receives the action:
The ball hit me.
Don’t forget us.
Whom do you like best?

Most of the time we have little trouble recognizing subject and verb because the subject usually comes before the verb and the object comes after it.

The difficulty with who/whom arises from the fact that in a question, word order is reversed. We say “Where are you going?” and not “You are going where?”, “Whom do you like best?” and not “You do like whom best?”

Things get really sticky when a sentence contains more than one clause (i.e., more than one set of subject and verb).

The maid’s response is made up of two clauses. That is, it has two verbs: shall say and is calling. The subject of shall say is I. The subject of is calling is who. The clauses can be constructed in various ways:

Who is calling, shall I say?
Shall I say who is calling?
Who shall I say is calling?

The irony of Grafton’s criticism of the maid’s use of who is that elsewhere in the novel, Millhone doesn’t always use whom when it would be appropriate.


The use of whom as the object form of who is on its way out of the language. More and more educated speakers and writers use who as both subject and object. There doesn’t seem to be any reason not to. “Who do you want?” has become acceptable. Indeed, to the American ear, “Whom do you want?” sounds excessively proper. Personally, I like to observe the difference between who and whom in my writing, but I rarely do in speaking.

Whatever you do, don’t use whom as a subject! I’ve seen it done, further proof that this particular point of grammar has lost its significance. If you aren’t sure whether to use who or whom, go with who.

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13 thoughts on “Beware of “Whom””

  1. Well, you taught me something else I didn’t (completely) know.

    I’m surprised Sue Grafton’s editors didn’t catch that. I haven’t read any of her books, but I think I’ve seen her on a couple bestseller lists so she must be popular.

    Unless she was intentionally making the detective look stupid, heh..

  2. Thorn, I guess it could be an intentional mistake, after all it was even highlighted by the remark towards the maid!

  3. Here’s a famous line that I always keep in mind to remember that “whom” is always used as the object of a preposition:

    “For whom the bell tolls.”

  4. The way I determine the proper use of “who” or “whom” is to insert “he” or “him.” In the above example, “Who shall I say is calling?” we would say, “He is calling,” not “Him is calling.” Therefore we use “who” and not “whom.” The “m” on “him” means put the “m” on “who” to make “whom.” This may seem like a lengthy procedure to figure it out, but it seems to work for me.

  5. I don’t know what I’m talking about, however, is it possible that whom is actually correct?

    Heres why:

    Who(m) in the sentance could be considered an object in that Who(m) has the action of *being said* done to it.

    Additionally, because of the nature of the question: “Whom shall I say is calling?”, the Who(m) being said, may not actually be the person who is calling.

    I feel like, “Should I say who is calling?” implies that the person who asks the question allready know who who is.

    I just think whom may actually be correct… especially in a mystery novel involving maids.

  6. Ben,
    I just noticed your post. Don’t know how I happened to miss it in March.

    The maid is correct. By no kind of convoluted reasoning can you make “whom” correct in this context.


  7. Thank you so much for clarifying this. I’ve had a hard time deciding which to use as well, and would stick to “who” to be safe. These posts are so helpful and educational. Thank you for a great blog! Love it!

  8. Wow! People actually care about this and I thought I had become extinct, like the apostrophe. Let us hope these small points remain important so that we can keep alive the English language in which or in whom we may still believe!

  9. Just as an aside, it is an effective tool when writing dialog to peg the education level of a character by merely letting the character demonstrate it through either correct or incorrect usage of who or whom. Interesting that a few decades ago this tool could best be used by having the more educated character say, “Give it to whomever you wish!”. However, today one can realistically expect even the more educated reader to forgive ” to whoever you wish” in an informal genre, while disdaining its use in a formal or academic genre. Conversely, to have a young, homeless dropout in a ghetto say “to whomever you wish” will not ring true for any reader. These examples tend to illustrate the dynamics of change mentioned, as well as the power still available to authors through the selective use of who and whom.

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