Grammar Rules: Who vs. Whom

who vs whom

Do you know when to use who or 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While whom may sound outdated, it can pose a problem, especially if you’re writing for an erudite audience or if you are a stickler for using words properly and adhering to all known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:

  1. It ends with a preposition
  2. 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.

Interrogative Pronoun

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.

Example:

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!

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

15 Responses to “Grammar Rules: Who vs. Whom”

  1. Ashley says:

    I’ve always felt weird using the word “whom” when writing fiction, even if was the correct word but it’s always good to know when to use it just in case.

  2. Ashely, it does feel strange and outdated to use whom. However, there have been a few occasions where I found it appropriate, so I do think it’s good to know (just in case).

  3. Deb says:

    I think people fear sounding “uppity” if they use whom, even correctly because so many use it wrong.

    I personally think it sounds Hemingway-esque; and it’s the closest I’ll get to his caliber of writing in the fiction category.

  4. I agree with Deb. It probably makes people feel “uppity” to use the word whom.

    This was a great explanation, Melissa! Fun indeed. :-)

  5. HERCULEANTHOR says:

    Having just finished a book replete with who and whom’s, I don’t feel that the issue is so much a question of being outdated but a question of proper grammar, regardless. I must say, my editing to this point (half-way) has revealed that for the most part, my whom to who usage has been spot-on. Frankly, it sounds a bit silly to try and use the “It sounds old-fashioned.” excuse to never use whom. Who made up that rule and to whom does it apply? Ha-ha. Think about it . . . anytime you have used such salutation in a letter, it goes to whom it may concern; not to who. Whom has its rightful place in proper English usage. Thanks for the useful article on other little hints to use that I may not have thought of. And yes, ending a sentence in a preoposition is a big no-no in APA format, but can be a great writer’s tool. Ciao babe.

  6. Evelyn says:

    Hmmm… never really thought about it. The us of whom does sound “uppity” but if it’s right, it’s right! I’ll try to be good. If I want to let people know why I’m sounding uppity, I’ll just share the link to this story! I may do that just so I can! :)

    • One of the reasons the who/whom issue frustrates me is because it does sound uppity. Most people simply don’t use “whom” anymore. Why should they when “who” will do? There’s a similar dilemma with regards to ending a sentence with a preposition. We’re not really supposed to, but it actually sounds better in many cases. Each writer (or speaker) has to decide how closely to stick with the traditional rules. Just remember, language is always evolving!

      • Bob says:

        I’m sorry but no reputable grammatical authority has ever said it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. In English it is natural to do so. The rule was evidently invented by the poet Dryden and somehow picked up by school teachers; but it has never been given any credence in any authoritative grammar book.

        Language and its grammar change and the use of “whom” no longer follows the old prescriptivist rules. “Whom” and other pronoun forms are vestiges of when English still had a full case system, but they no longer have any grammatical or logical function. “Whom” is probably going the way of “thou”, “thine”, “thee”, “thy”, and “ye”.

  7. Terry Wilson says:

    Hey. I’m one of those crotchety English Canadians who went to public school in the 1940s and learned grammar at the flat of a yardstick. Screw up a there/their, a neither/nor or a who/whom question, and Whack! Primitive methodology perhaps, but effective. So you understand why I cringe when reading a passage and find a who sitting in place of a whom. Oh boy, I think, Mrs. Jackson is going to get you!
    I suggest, whatever is accepted as correct grammar always be used except in dialogue where the ear is boss.

  8. Maryanne Khan says:

    Melissa,

    not to be mean, but I noticed that you said “If you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with him, then you should use whom” when the subjunctive case is appropriate. “If you replaced . . .” or “If you were to replace.”

  9. Tanya says:

    Thank you for a great article. Who versus whom has always been a struggle for me. This helps me feel more confident about using it correctly!