Who or Whom?

by Craig Shrives
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What is the difference between "who" and "whom"?

"Who" and "whom" are easy to confuse, but they are no different to pairings like "he/him" and "they/them," which we can all use without any issues. Let's examine the grammar:

"Who" is like "he" because it is used as the subject of a verb. For example:
  • Who likes milk in tea?
  • (Compare this to "He likes milk in tea.")
"Whom" is like "him" because it is used as an object. (It is never the subject of a verb.) For example:
  • Sarah saw whom on the bus?
  • (Compare this to "Sarah saw him on the bus.")
So, "who" and "whom" has nothing to do with US or UK writing conventions (as some people think). If it's the subject of a verb, use "who." If it's not, use "whom."
the difference between who and whom

More about "Who" and "Whom"

In order to understand the difference between "who" and "whom," you must know the difference between the subject of a verb and the object of a verb. If you're new to grammar and don't know what these terms mean, don't worry. They're simpler than they sound, and you already deal with subjects and objects effectively (even if you don't know you do).

"Who" Is the Subject of a Verb

The word "who" can only be used when it is the subject of a verb. This just means it is like the words "I," "he," "she," "we," and "they." Just like "who," these words are used as subjects.

Confusing "who/whom" is no different to confusing pairings like "I/me" or "he/him." Here they all are in a table:
Subjective PronounObjective Pronoun
IMe
YouYou
He / She / ItHim / Her / It
WeUs
YouYou
TheyThem
WhoWhom

What Is the Subject of a Verb?

Verbs are doing words (e.g., to dance, to sit, to fly, to think).

The subject of a verb is the person or thing doing the verb. For example:
  • Peter flies to Moscow on Tuesdays.
  • ("Peter" is the subject of the verb "to fly.")
  • Helen's boss drinks a lot of coffee.
  • ("Helen's boss" is the subject of the verb "to drink.")

A Neat Trick for Spotting "Who"

Substitute "who" with the word "he." If that part of the sentence still makes sense, then "who" is almost certainly correct. For example:
  • Who paid for the meal? correct tick
  • He paid for the meal. correct tick
  • (As "he" sounds okay, "who" must be correct.)
  • I have never seen the man who lives in the hut. correct tick
  • (As "he" lives in the hut" sounds okay, "who" must be correct.)
  • I wonder who is in charge. correct tick
  • (As "he is in charge" sounds okay, "who" must be correct.)
  • Sarah gave the tickets to who? wrong cross
  • (As "gave the tickets to he" sounds wrong, "who" must be wrong. This should be "gave the tickets to whom?".)
This trick works because "who" and "he" are used as the subjects of verbs. They are said to be in the subjective case.

"Who" = "They"

In order to perform this trick for plurals, you must substitute "who" with the word "they."
  • I met the people who were on the plane. correct tick
  • (As "they were on the plane" is okay, "who" must be correct.)

A Neat Trick for Spotting "Whom"

Substitute "whom" with the word "him" (or "them" for plurals). If that part of the sentence still makes sense, then "whom" is almost certainly correct.
  • Sarah gave the tickets to whom? correct tick
  • (As "Sarah gave the tickets to him" sounds okay, "whom" must be correct.)
  • The witness saw four boys, one of whom had a limp. correct tick
  • (As "one of them" sounds okay, "whom" must be correct.)

Don't Get it? Use "Who"

If you're still unsure which to use, use "who." Firstly, it is much more common than "whom." Secondly, the use of "whom" is considered by many to be on its last legs in English, and some sources already describe "whom" as obsolete.

You might have noticed that the pronouns "you" and "it" make no distinction between being a subject or an object, and "who" appears to be heading in that direction too.

Look at this example:
  • Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes? wrong cross (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • (This quotation by Groucho Marx is incorrect. It should start "Whom are you going to believe." However, "whom" sounds a bit contrived, don't you think?)

Examples of "Who" and "Whom" in Sentences

Here are some more examples of "who" and "whom" in sentences. Notice that "who" always performs the action of a verb (shown in bold). Remember that "whom" never does.
  • Who paid for the meal? correct tick
  • ("Who" is the subject of the verb "to pay.")
  • I have not seen the man who lives in the hut by the beach for a week. correct tick
  • ("Who" is the subject of the verb "to live.")
  • I wonder who is in charge. correct tick
  • ("Who" is the subject of the verb "to be," i.e., "who is.")
  • Do you know the boy who rang the bell? correct tick
  • ("Who" is the subject of "rang.")
  • Sarah gave the tickets to whom? correct tick
  • ("Sarah" is the subject of "gave." "Whom" isn't the subject of anything. "Whom" is correct.)
Let's look at a wrong version of that last example:
  • Sarah gave the tickets to who? wrong cross
  • (This is like saying "Sarah gave the tickets to he.")

Real Life Examples of People Using "Whom" Incorrectly

Often, you have to look closely at your sentence to see whether "who" is the subject of a verb. Here are two real-life examples of people getting it wrong:
  • If you notice any faulty office equipment or hazards, please report them to your supervisor whom will notify the management. wrong cross
  • (This is wrong. It should be "who will notify the management".)
Here is a slightly more complicated example from a TV magazine. The use of "whom" is incorrect because it is the subject of "existed."
whom mistake
(This should be "It follows the frustrating hunt for a madman who the authorities refused to admit existed." This is a complicated example. It is easy to understand why the magazine editor missed it.)

"Whom" Is Never the Subject of a Verb

"Whom" is like "him," "her," and "them" because it is never the subject of a verb. "Whom" is an object. For example:

Examples of "Whom" in Sentences

  • Claire kissed whom yesterday? correct tick
  • (Here, "whom" is the direct object of the verb "kissed.")
  • You gave the parcel to whom? correct tick
  • (Here, "whom" is the indirect object of the verb "gave.")
  • You sat by whom all night? correct tick
  • (Here, "whom" is the object of the preposition "by.")
  • She is a wistful recluse whom lives near the river. wrong cross
  • (Remember that "whom" cannot be the subject of a verb. This should be "who lives".)
If you can follow this conversation, then you understand "who" and "whom" and subjects and objects:
  • [Person A] John told Jackie your secret.
  • [Person B] Whom?
  • [Person A] John.
  • [Person B] No, I asked whom not who.
  • [Person A] Jackie.

"Whom" after Prepositions

Always use "whom" after prepositions. (Prepositions are words like "to," "with," "by," "on," "in," "near.") In the examples below, the prepositions are in bold.
  • You have a child by whom? correct tick
  • With whom did you see Janice? correct tick
  • That is the lady to whom I made the promise. correct tick
  • That is the lady whom I made the promise to. correct tick
  • (Some writers like to avoid ending a sentence in a preposition and so construct their sentences like the third example in this set. Remember that the preposition still governs "whom.")

A Joke That Misuses "Who"

Here is a joke from a student comic that misuses "who":
who whom joke
(It should be "Two hits to whom?".)

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