Who or whom? The question trips up even grammar-lovers. And in many circles, whom is becoming obsolete, which may sadden grammar purists.
Although who and whom are similar, each serves a distinct purpose. In order to understand how to use these pronouns correctly, you’ll have to refresh yourself on sentence structure.
Once you’ve got this down and compared several examples, you’ll be able to remember how to use who and whom quite easily.
Parts of a sentence: a quick refresher
The basic parts of a sentence are the subject and the predicate. The predicate must include a verb but may also include an object.
The subject is the person or thing that acts. The verb describes the action. The object is the person or thing that’s acted upon by a verb or preposition.
Clearly, sentences can get far more complicated than this. But this is the basic structure of a sentence.
In English, the standard order of a declarative sentence, or statement, is subject—verb—object. For example:
- Tyrone bought the pizza.
- Maria likes Jorge.
- My children are watching TV.
- The Kahdims are my neighbors.
- Our boss called the police.
We’re going to come back to these sentences further along as we explain who versus whom.
Who is a pronoun that replaces or refers to the singular or plural subject of a sentence. Who can be used in a question or a statement.
This famous book title by Stieg Larsson includes who:
“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”
Now, look at this headline:
“Couple who missed Royal Caribbean cruise in viral video was celebrating honeymoon”
Here are some other examples of how to use who in a sentence:
- Who do you think you are?
- I wonder who’s at the door.
- Who wants to go swimming?
- Tell me who did this.
Now, let’s go back to our original examples and use who to form a question from each statement.
- Who bought the pizza? (Who replaces “Tyrone.”)
- Who likes Jorge? (Who replaces “Maria.”)
- Who’s watching TV? (Who replaces “my children.”)
- Who are your neighbors? (Who replaces “the Kahdims,” the subject—not “neighbors,” the object.)
- Who called the police? (Who replaces “our boss.”)
We’ll take the idea further and develop the original examples into statements that relate to or directly answer the questions above.
- I never found out who bought the pizza.
- I don’t care who likes Jorge.
- You tell me who’s watching TV!
- I didn’t ask who your neighbors are.
- I know who called the police.
To recap, who replaces or refers to the subject of a sentence.
Whom is a pronoun that replaces the singular or plural object of a sentence. Whom can be used in a question or a statement.
One of the most famous uses of whom is in this classic book title by Ernest Hemingway:
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
Now, look at this headline:
“A Singer for Whom Words Always Came First”
The New York Times
Right away, you can probably sense a difference between whom and who, even if you can’t put your finger on it.
In these two examples, whom is followed by a preposition, but this isn’t always the case. With a direct object, a preposition isn’t necessary.
You’ll also notice that a clause (a sentencelike phrase including both a subject and a verb) follows whom.
Let’s look at using whom in a sentence. Here are some examples:
- To whom am I speaking?
- Whom are you calling?
- Don’t tell me whom to spend time with!
- With whom did you dance?
- Whom did the factory hire?
- I have no idea whom I’ll marry.
- By whom is he standing?
Let’s go back to our original sentences. We’ll expand one of them:
- Maria likes Jorge.
- My children are watching TV with Nana.
To turn these sentences into questions, note the different uses of who and whom. First:
- Who likes Jorge?
- Whom does Maria like?
- Who’s watching TV with Nana?
- With whom are your children watching TV?
- Who’s watching TV with your children?
- With whom is Nana watching TV?
To recap, whom replaces or refers to the object of a verb or preposition.
The modern use of who
In casual conversations today, you’ll hear things like:
- Who are your kids watching TV with?
- Who did Tyrone buy the pizza for?
This is one of those lazy-grammar habits that’s become marginally acceptable in speech and even in some writing. But if you want to be taken seriously and to come across smartly in your writing, it’s always better to use whom when it’s called for.
In fact, The New York Times addressed this who–whom laziness, or perhaps ignorance, in a 2015 blog post. You’d do well to follow their lead.
How to use who and whom correctly
Both pronouns can be used in questions or statements.
- Who replaces the subject of a sentence.
- Whom replaces the object of a sentence.
An easy way to determine if you should use who or whom is to see if he or him fits into the sentence. (Of course, she and her work too, but he and him sound more like who and whom, so it’s a simpler test.)
- He bought this book. > Who bought this book?
- Him bought this book. > Nope!
- I gave the book to he. > Nope!
- I gave the book to him. > To whom did you give the book?
In casual speech and writing, whom is becoming somewhat obsolete. But for formal speech and writing, always use whom when it’s called for.
Note that if you’re developing a story character who’s young or doesn’t have an advanced education, your character likely won’t be throwing whom around in their dialogue.
If you’re writing anything else, stick with whom … so a bell doesn’t toll for your reputation.