Who vs. Whom

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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Want other Grammar Rules? Check out:
Affect vs. Effect
Which vs. That
Since vs. Because
Sneaked vs. Snuck
Ensure vs. Insure
Home in vs. Hone in
Leaped vs. Leapt
Lay vs. Lie vs. Laid 

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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.

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15 thoughts on “Who vs. Whom

  1. AvatarHelecho

    Hi, I would appreciate a bit of help with this sentence:
    When doing so, it becomes the first clue we give others about whom he is or whom he wants to become.
    I am unsure whether I should use “whom” or “who”. I chose whom because the clue is about him, but for some reason feel it may not be correct. Any help will be greatly appreciated!!
    Thanks! 🙂

    1. AvatarJay Preis

      Your analysis is incorrect. The grammatic function of the relative pronoun who/whom within the clauses “who/whom he is” and “who/whom he wants to become” is what determines the case of the pronoun. These clauses, not the pronoun, are the objects of the preposition “about.”

      The verbs “is” and “wants to become” within the clauses refer back to their subjects. Therefore, the correct pronoun is “who.”

      Your sentence should read, “When doing so, it becomes the first clue we give others about who he is or who he wants to become.”

      However, the singular “he” is inconsistent with the plural “we.” Your sentence should read, “When doing so, it becomes the first clue we give others about who we are and who we want to become.”

      1. AvatarnMiguy

        who / whom 🙂

        Dear J Preis,
        Two observations on your critiquing our original poster, “Helecho”:

        1]- Seems like your corrected sentence has an error in the 2nd “who/whom”.
        “Who he wants to become”, is how you say it should be. But switching that phrase around, wouldn’t it become “he wants to become… [WHO … or WHOM]? This helps one to see that in this case, “whom” is the object of what “he wants to become”.
        So wouldn’t it correctly read “whom he wants to become “ (he wants to become whom)?

        You correct Helecho about an apparent inconsistency with the “we” and the two “he’s” in his sentence.
        But readers of the sentence don’t know the particulars of the situation (but the writer does). So wouldn’t it be correct to say that “we”, a group, are making an observation of what course “he”, a single individual, will take? For example, it could be that a group is planning out a disinformation campaign. And in doing so, they’re considering the identity credentials of their fictitious person, who they hope will mislead their adversaries (how’d I do with the “who/whom” there? haha).
        So, saying “… the first clue we give others about who he is or whom he wants to become”, seems to make perfect sense for a situation such as that.
        AND really, Helecho’s original “the first clue we give others about who he is or whom he wants to become”, is what gives us this insight. That very part of the sentence tells us that it’s a group who is considering an individual.

        So actually, in the whole sentence, it seems to me the only thing that needs correcting is the 2nd “who/whom”; it would become “whom”.
        That’s my unlettered and ordinary analysis, anyways. It is subject to analysis itself!!

        1. AvatarnMiguy

          correction to my own correction…

          orig sentence from Helecho:
          “When doing so it becomes the first clue we give others about whom he is or whom he wants to become”, I feel should read (for the reasons above):
          “When doing so, it becomes the first clue we give others about WHO he is and WHOM he wants to become. “

  2. Avatarccopley

    I never could keep “complement” or “nominative” straight in my head, so here’s the approach that works for me: Rearrange the sentence, and just remember that “whoM” goes with “hiM,” “theM,” and “Me.” All those “M” sounds belong together. If you rearrange the sentence and get “he,” “they,” or “I,” then the word you’re looking for is “who.”

  3. AvatarSean O'Mordha

    Thank you for the clarification. Hopefully this will help those who were absent the day it was explained in grammar school. A good way to avoid the issue all together is to write only dialogue where all the rules of grammar are pitched out the window or use a narrator with an American high school education.

  4. AvatarRose

    Another thing to consider is the context of your writing. Some characters may not use correct grammar in their speech for example, in which case using ‘whom’ correctly may make the character sound more formal.

    I like the him/he tip.

  5. AvatarEvilPRman

    That’s a great explanation, though I suspect that readers who understand your grammar terms have already mastered the who/whom distinction, and those who need your who/whom distinction do not grasp your grammar terms well enough to “get there from here.”

    That’s why your he/him test is ideal. I’ve used it to help buddies. It simplifies all.

    Your reminder to use “who” in sentences like, “Choose who runs fastest” is an *excellent* clarification.

    1. AvatarRolf

      You might be right, EvilPRman, but I hope not. We are suppose to be writers here.

      While I agree that the “he/him” test is good supporting material. I came to this page not for the trick, but for the real grammatical reasoning behind it. I already knew the trick.

      Brian, thank you for not “dumbing this down” to a purely pragmatic and utilitarian level.


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