Q: I don’t understand the difference between who and whom. Can you please explain to me, in simple terms, how to differentiate between the two?—Anonymous
The confusion between who and whom is one of the most common problems writers face. It can be tricky to find the correct use, and sometimes you may feel like locating the person who invented both words and smacking him upside his head. But there is a difference.
Who is used as the subject of a verb or complement of a linking verb. It’s a nominative pronoun. It was Carl who broke all the pencils in the house. When writing a sentence, first find the verb(s)—was and broke. Then, find the subject for each verb: Carl and who. Since who is a subject, it’s correct. Who needs a crayon to write this down?
Whom is used as the object of the verb or the object of a preposition. It’s an objective pronoun. You asked whom to the dance? In this case, the subject and verb are “You asked.” The pronoun following the verb is the object of the verb, therefore whom is correct. He’s already going to the prom with whom? This pronoun is the object of the preposition with, so whom is the right pick. Be careful, though. Make sure the prepositional pronoun in question isn’t also a subject—if it is, then you use who. For example, I cheered for who played hardest. While the pronoun follows a preposition (for), it’s also the subject of the second verb (played). When placed as a subject, always use who.
One way to remember is to check to see which pronoun can replace the questionable word. It’s a little trick I learned back in elementary school: If it can be replaced with “he,” you use who; if “him” fits better, use whom. Sometimes you may need to split the sentence to see it. For example, It was Carl—he broke all the pencils in the house. Who should be used here. You asked him to the dance? Whom is the correct choice.
And when in doubt on the “who whom” debacle, recast the sentence to avoid the issue altogether.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.