Few things strike as much terror in the hearts of nervous writers as the prospect of accidentally confusing the terms “who” and “whom.” More often than not, we know one of these words is appropriate, but can’t say with 100% certainty which is the correct choice.
Although you may be tempted to tell yourself the difference between the two is unimportant, this is a risky strategy. While most people will forgive this mistake in everyday conversations, you’re more likely to run into difficulty if you make this error in a piece of formal writing.
If your reader is a real grammar pedant, you could open yourself up to huge amounts of ridicule by choosing the wrong word. Or, in a worst-case scenario, you risk undermining your professional credibility if you make this gaffe in your firm’s annual report.
To help you avoid one of the most common mistakes in the English language, we’ve put together a need-to-know guide to help you get your head around the difference between these two terms.
The difference between “who” and “whom”
Luckily for grammar novices, the difference between “who” and “whom” may not be as tricky as you imagine.
In its simplest terms, “who” is always the subject of a sentence, while “whom” is the object of a verb or proposition. Still confused? Bear with us. It does get simpler.
The subject of a sentence is the person or thing performing any action that is being described. In most cases, the subject of a sentence will take the form of words such as “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” or indeed “who.” These are known as the subjective pronouns.
- Who stole all the diamonds?
- He stole all the diamonds.
- They stole all the diamonds.
In each of these examples, the subject of the sentence (highlighted in bold) is the individual or individuals performing the action (stealing) on the object of the sentence (the diamonds).
Now, let’s turn to the object of the sentence. The object of a sentence is the thing or person on which the action is being performed. Although this is often a conventional noun, as in the example above (diamonds), the object of the sentence can also be one of the following pronouns: “me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “us,” “they, “them,” and, of course, “whom.” These words are known as the objective pronouns.
- To whom should I speak about claiming my lottery win?
- You should speak to me about claiming your lottery win.
- You should speak to her about claiming your lottery win.
In the above sentences, the object of the sentence (highlighted in bold) is the person being spoken to about claiming the lottery win.
Another important point to remember when it comes to “who” and “whom” is that they are both interrogative pronouns, which means you’ll often find these terms used in questions.
Tips and tricks for using “who” correctly
You probably feel confident identifying the subject of a sentence when the word in question is simply “he,” “she,” or “they,” but many of us begin to feel less certain as soon as the term “who” enters the equation.
Fortunately, you don’t need an English degree to understand the correct usage of the term and there are some simple tricks that can help you remember.
When you believe it is correct to use “who” in a piece of writing, try rewriting your original sentence and switching out the word “who” for the personal pronouns “he” or “she.” If your revised sentence makes sense, then you’re spot on.
- I can’t believe who is getting married.
- I can’t believe he is getting married.
- Who did you bake those brownies for?
- I baked those brownies for he.
While the first sentence in this example might sound correct, by substituting in the subjective pronoun “he,” you’ll probably be able to see the problem. “He” doesn’t work because it’s a subjective pronoun, so “who” won’t do either. You’ll need the objective pronoun, “him” or “whom.”
- Whom did you bake those brownies for?
If you’re talking about more than one person or object, you can substitute the word “they” for “who,” as in the following example:
- Who sang with Beyonce at the Olympic ceremony?
- They sang with Beyonce at the Olympic ceremony.
Since the subjective “they” sounds correct here, you can assume that “who” works as well.
Tips and tricks for using “whom” correctly
While you may feel nervous enough about using “who” in a sentence, many people feel even more uncertain when it comes to “whom” and may even avoid the term entirely rather than risk the embarrassment of using it incorrectly.
As the word arguably feels fairly old-fashioned or stuffy in tone, you may fear that using it incorrectly could make you appear pompous, pretentious, or even ridiculous.
Luckily, there is a simple way to tell whether “whom” is correct in a sentence. Take your original sentence, and this time, replace the term “whom” with “him” or “her.” For example:
- To whom was the love letter addressed?
- The love letter was addressed to her.
- She is the type of person to whom a career is very important.
- A career is very important to her.
- Whom made your wedding dress?
- Her made my wedding dress.
Since “her” doesn’t work in this sentence, it follows that the objective pronoun “whom” doesn’t work in this sentence and you’ll need the subjective one instead.
- Who made your wedding dress?
When you’re dealing with plural nouns, you can substitute the word “them” for “whom” and see if the resulting sentence sounds awkward.
- Whom should we question about the bank robbery?
- You should question them about the bank robbery.
Another nifty way to remember when to use “whom” is to think of the letter M, which is the final letter of both the words “whom,” “him,” and “them.” If you’d need to use a regular pronoun that ends in M, then “whom” rather than “who” is the way to go.
Relative pronouns and subordinate clauses
If you want to use the terms “who” and “whom” correctly, it’s helpful to understand that these are examples of relative pronouns, along with the terms “that,” “which,” and “whose.”
The purpose of these words is to introduce an adjective clause: a collection of words that modify or describe a noun.
A relative pronoun will almost always follow the noun it is modifying. Its purpose is normally to introduce the noun or give the reader a relevant fact about it.
In the examples below, the relative pronouns are highlighted in bold. The pronouns “who” and “whom” stand for “the man” and “the woman” respectively, and are followed by adjective clauses that tell us more about these people.
- The man, who ate the food from the takeaway, had food poisoning for days afterwards.
- The woman, whom he loved deeply, had little interest in him.
An adjective clause cannot stand on its own once removed from the sentence. Take our example above: you could not simply write “whom he loved deeply,” as this phrase would be meaningless in isolation. For this reason, they are also known as subordinate or dependent clauses.
If you only remember one thing
When you’re feeling nervous about understanding the difference between “who” and “whom,” ask yourself a simple question: do I know the difference between “she” and “her” or “he” and “him”? If the answer is yes, then relax. You already have all the tools you need to master the correct use of “who” and “whom.”
All you need to do is write your sentence, reread it, and then decide which pronouns you would use to make your new sentence work.
- Who taught you the difference between “who” and “whom”?
- She taught me the difference between “who” and “whom.”
- To whom did you teach the difference between “who” and “whom”?
- I taught him the difference between “who” and “whom.”