Grammar Rules: Who vs. Whom
It sounds pretty old fashioned: To whom have you sent those letters? Modern colloquial speakers expect something more along the lines of Who did you send those letters to?
While whom may sound outdated, it can pose a problem, especially if you’re writing for an erudite audience or if you are a stickler for using words properly and adhering to all known grammar rules.
In the example above, the second sentence (Who did you send those letters to?) breaches the standards set forth by proper grammar by ending a sentence with a preposition, and it breaks the rules of usage in the ongoing battle of who vs. whom.
Here are the two grammar rules violated by our example sentence:
- It ends with a preposition
- It uses who where whom is the correct interrogative pronoun
It’s worth noting that many grammarians today are increasingly granting exception to ending sentences with prepositions. As more and more writers and speakers place prepositions at the end of sentences, the practice is becoming more and more acceptable.
However, we’re not here to talk about prepositions. We’re going to take a look at how to properly use the words who or whom in a sentence.
Interrogative Pronoun! Are You Kidding?
Yeah, I guess it sounds pretty high-brow, and no, I’m not kidding. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not one of those grammar snobs. I do, however, believe that writers who learn the rules can better get away with breaking them. If you are a writer, then it couldn’t possibly hurt to know what an interrogative pronoun is and how to use it in a sentence, correctly.
Plus, learning about interrogative pronouns will help you know the difference between who vs. whom.
Simply put, an interrogative pronoun is a pronoun that is used in a question. You know these words: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Whence and whither are also interrogative pronouns, but I’ll spare you on those. For now.
Who Uses Whom Nowadays?
The word whom seems to have fallen out of favor, although some crotchety old aunt or anal-retentive English teacher might force it into your vocabulary at some point. For all I know, whom could still be used in British English, Canadian English, or Aussie speak. It’s safe to assume that a high profile writing assignment (Ph.D, anyone?) would require you to adhere to strict rules, and to use whom where it would be expected. Also, if you were writing a historical novel or perhaps a fantasy tale with a medieval flair, you’d want to know such things so your characters would have realistic dialogue.
It’s also worth noting that as you learn the correct applications of who and whom, you may acquire a taste for using these words more properly, especially in writing (but probably not so much in your speech).
So, What’s the Difference between Who and Whom?
First I’ll give you the technical answer, and then I’ll follow up with a trick to help you remember whether to use who or whom in your own sentence crafting.
- Who refers to the subject of a sentence, while whom refers to the object.
Yep, it’s that simple.
I see you.
In the sentence above, I is the subject and you is the object. I always remember subject as the giver (or doer) and object as the receiver (of an action). In this example, I am doing the action (seeing) and you are receiving the action (getting seen). Now let’s replace the subject and object with an interrogative pronoun.
When the subject is an interrogative pronoun, use who.
Since who is the proper interrogative pronoun for representing a sentence’s subject, you could say:
Who sees you?
(I do. I see you.)
When the object of a sentence is an interrogative pronoun, use whom.
I see whom? or Whom do I see?
(I see you.)
The following sentences would be incorrect: Who do I see? Whom sees you?
Quick Trick for Remember Who vs. Whom
Some months ago, while listening to Grammar Girl (one of my favorite podcasts), I picked up a neat little trick for remembering when to use who vs. whom. Both whom and him are pronouns that end with the letter m. So, all you do is remove the interrogative pronoun and replace it with he or him.
If you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with him, then you should use whom:
I see whom?
I see him.
Whom did I see?
I saw him.
But if you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with he, then you should use who:
Who saw me?
He saw me.
Grammar sure is fun.
Do you ever struggle with whether to use who or whom in a sentence? Got any tips or tricks for remembering who vs. whom? Leave a comment, and keep sticking to those grammar rules!