When it comes to writing, there are some words that can be confusing as to which is the correct one to use. A good example of this confusion is further versus farther. Another common word duo many people have difficulty knowing which is correct is ‘who’ and ‘whom’.
Very few people bother to use the word ‘whom’ in spoken English, but when we’re writing, we want to use the correct grammar. Since we so seldom use ‘whom’, we aren’t always sure when it is the right choice, or when we should stick to the familiar ‘who’ instead.
Most experts agree that if we are unsure, ‘who’ is a safer bet. And it’s fine for informal writing – after all ‘whom’ is slowly disappearing from our language. However, if we have to produce formal written work, we do need to know when to use the mysterious ‘whom’. Put it in the wrong places, and you’ll look pompous and silly. Omit it when you should have used it, and you’ll look unprofessional if your error is picked up.
First of all, we’ll look at the rule that governs the use of ‘whom’, and then, to make it easier for you, we’ll look at a little ‘cheat’ that you can use to test a sentence when you aren’t sure which of the two words belongs.
The rule governing the use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’
Look at the verb in your sentence. Is ‘who’ performing the action? If so, ‘who’ is the right choice to make. So ‘who’ is the subject of a verb – the one who is the doer!
- Who is there?
- Do you know who will attend the conference?
- Who threw that snowball?
- I got hit by a snowball and I want to know who threw it!
- This is the man who won the prize.
You’ve probably already guessed that since you choose ‘who’ when the person you’re referring to is the subject of your verb, you’ll use ‘whom’ when the person becomes the object of the verb. The object is acted on by the verb rather than being the one responsible for the action.
- With whom were you out last night?
- We will inform those whom we shortlist.
- Be selective about those whom you choose as friends.
- To whom should the invoice be sent?
An easy ‘cheat’
Although we tend to be confused about when to use the word ‘who’ and the contexts in which ‘whom’ is the correct choice, we’re much more familiar with the words ‘he’ and ‘him’ and ‘they’ and ‘them’. We instinctively know which of the words in these pairs fit into any sentence.
You will have noticed that ‘whom’, ‘him’ and ‘them’ all end in the letter ‘m’, and the rule for choosing ‘them’ or ‘him’ rather than ‘they’ or ‘he’ is exactly the same as it is for ‘who’ and ‘whom’. By playing around with the sentence you plan to write, substituting ‘he’ or ‘him’ for ‘who’ or ‘whom’ you can get a pointer that tells you which of the two words will be correct. Of course, that won’t work as well for questions, but in that case, you can try answering the question as simply as possible to get your pointer.
Question: Who / Whom is knocking on the door? Answer: He is knocking.
So now we know that the right word to use in the question is ‘who’.
I met three men, one of who / whom is an astronaut. I met three men, one of them is an astronaut.
In this case, ‘whom’ matches ‘them’ and would be the correct word to use.
Unfortunately, our little cheat doesn’t always work as easily as it does in the above examples. If you find yourself struggling, you’ll have to return to your verb so you can decide whether who / whom is the subject or object of the verb. Always remember a subject performs the action indicated by the verb while the object is on the receiving end.
You can also look at where your prepositions are located. ‘Whom’ often follows a preposition. For example:
- With whom
- Of whom
- Beside whom
- After whom
- Around whom
Remember, the subtleties which dictate when we use ‘who’ and when we use ‘whom’ are not clear to the majority of people. Unless you are writing a formal document, you can choose ‘who’ and hope for the best. But if you can master the ‘who / whom’ distinction, you’ll be ahead of the pack, and that’s always a great place to be.