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When to use ‘who’ and when to use ‘whom’ seems to be one of the most common areas of confusion for English learners, and even possibly for native speakers. Personally, I don't find it confusing at all and (although I am no grammarian, as reflected in my answer) I even tried to reply to one of those questions in April 2017, my first month at ELU:

Conflicting who/whom usage rules in a sentence

I later found that members regularly and repeatedly ask about ‘who’ and ‘whom’ here:

https://english.stackexchange.com/search?q=Who+whom

‘Who and whom’ questions also get asked at other grammar websites with great regularity.

So linguistically speaking, what is it about ‘who’ and ‘whom’ that is so difficult for so many new learners?

Non-native speakers trying to improve their English often tend to go by rules rather than usage. Could it be that the 'rule' covering the use of who and whom is itself complex, ambiguous or contradictory?


Note: I am not asking what is the difference between who and whom, so somebody please don't close this question as a duplicate unless someone has previously asked specifically why who & whom create such difficulty for so many learners.

Nor is it primarily opinion-based if you can quote standard references or expert commentators to support your answer.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read that chat before commenting here: it's very possible that your comment has already been made. Please ensure comments here are requesting clarification of the post, and not discussing it. – Andrew Leach Jul 8 '17 at 8:23
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    Who(m) is, generally speaking, more of an issue for native speakers than learners exactly because there is a reasonably simple rule (which works most of the time). Native speakers generally don’t learn this rule in any kind of internalised way, and the distinction is not part of their language. It’s similar to how most native speakers (and, admittedly, learners) have trouble with the traditionally ‘proper’ distinction between due to and because of: to most, it’s an artificial difference that doesn’t exist in their language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 20 '17 at 23:49
  • Yes indeed, thanks for explaining it again and with such clarity @Janus Bahs Jacquet. Some of your earlier, pertinent comments on this topic (maybe on a related question page) seem to have been moved to chat. – English Student Nov 20 '17 at 23:52
  • Here's the easy rule: don't use 'whom'. Nobody uses it anymore. – Mitch Nov 21 '17 at 0:21
  • For an example of a context where the grammar gets so tangled up that it’s very easy to see why people can’t figure it out, see this answer to an old question. Disclaimer: despite writing that answer and fleshing out the analysis myself, I still can’t figure out what syntactic role who(m) plays in that sentence. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 21 '17 at 0:25
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+100

I think there are a few reasons:

  • Most people are not great at taking an explicit grammar rule and just adopting it; rather, we're much better at internalizing rules when we also have exposure to language that conforms to those rules. Since whom is rarely and inconsistently used, most people don't have enough exposure to it to get a good sense of when it's used.

  • Most people (including most English teachers, most popular grammar and style writers, etc.) are not great at formulating explicit grammar rules, partly because they don't give a coherent overarching grammatical framework that those rules can fit into. Normally that doesn't make much difference because the explicit grammar rules aren't really how you learn grammar, but with something like whom where explicit grammar rules are almost all you've got, this is a problem.

    • In the specific case of whom, a large part of the problem is that it often sits at the intersection of two clauses, yet explanations of it never seem to worry about that.
  • There's a close relationship between who/whom and certain other areas where traditional grammar differs from everyday English:

    • When to use subject vs. object pronouns. Do we say "It is me", or "It is I"? "Me and Jamie", or "Jamie and me", or "Jamie and I"? "She is taller than him", or "She is taller than I"?

    • Preposition stranding vs. pied piping. Do we say "that we spoke of", or "of which we spoke"?


    So when trying to understand the grammar of whom, we also have to balance all the other pieces of formal grammar that we don't usually worry about.

  • The grammar of whom is often somewhat "long-range", in that the pronoun can be separated from the verb or preposition that it's the subject or object of. Consider this bit from Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe:

    This ſeaſon I found my family to encreaſe; for one of my cats that ran away from me, and whom I thought had been dead, returned about Auguſt, with three kittens at her heels, like herſelf, which I thought ſtrange, because […] [link]

    where whom is erroneously being used as the subject of had, apparently because the writer (or narrator) felt it to be the object of I thought. You'll see this sort of mistake even with points of grammar that are not common sources of confusion; you'll encounter things like "Talking to people you don't know, about things you don't understand, sometimes make you look foolish" [made-up example], where make should be makes, but where the singular-ness of talking has become less salient by the time the speaker got to the verb.

  • What an excellent answer that really made me understand 'why' people struggle with 'who/whom': so even great writers get caught out! Could the great Defoe have avoided error simply by omitting the 'had been' as in one of my cats that ran away from me, and whom I thought dead,returned(...)? It's easy to write grammatically, but do you know how difficult it is to write a good answer about grammar? It is not my strong suit: I am not articulate with it, and could write and write without making your point(s) -- so I greatly appreciate the quality and clarity of this very insightful explanation. – English Student Jul 8 '17 at 22:10
  • @ruakh: in your last paragraph, shouldn't it be "where whom (I can't italicise it) is erroneously being used as the subject of had been (again, I can't italicise)"? – user58319 Nov 22 '17 at 9:28
  • @user58319: For italics, use asterisks: *whom* becomes whom. For your question: I think it's 100% fine to say that something is "the subject of had been", as you suggest, but I don't know why you'd insist upon it. "Had been" is not an inseparable unit, since we can say things like "Had it always been there?" "Yes, it had." – ruakh Nov 22 '17 at 17:53
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I think a relevant factor is the much more rare use of "whom" compared to "who" in common speech. According to an article in The Economist,

A search of the Spoken category of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds that I is about eight times more common than me—but who is 57 times more common than whom.

The article points out the difficulty for English learners, particularly young children learning native English, of learning the appropriateness of a word that is rarely used at all by adults in speech.

It has even been suggested by serious linguists that "whom" will someday be as obsolete as "thee" or "thine;" lost through the same process of obsolescence that keeps the English language elastic and constantly moving.

When a word is rarely used in casual speech, it becomes subject to conflict between prescriptivist grammarians and descriptivist linguists observing the evolution of the language. In the case of "whom," this means that students are taught to use the word correctly in writing, but in casual speech it is often foregone for "who."

For example, in writing, I would probably have the discipline to write:

To whom did you give the book?

But when speaking with fellow native English speakers, I would almost certainly say

Who did you give the book to?

It wouldn't surprise me if many masters of the English language follow the same habits in common speech. Since speech is often how English is learned, particularly by children, it seems natural that they would struggle to master a rule that is oft violated by the native adult authorities themselves.

  • Another excellent answer from RaceYouAnytime that hits the nail on the head -- the point about increasing rarity of using 'whom' leading to (1) difficulty for youngsters to learn the use of 'whom' naturally (2) increasing confusion about usage and also (3) more descriptivist vs prescriptivist debate, is very congruent with the answer of @ruakh, and the highly perceptive linguistic theory of 1006a(which can be found in comments moved to chat) -- the article you linked to makes it official, so that none can call it mere opinion -- all that taken together is very convincing to humble myself! – English Student Jul 8 '17 at 23:29
  • The cogent argument of 1006a that who/whom represents some aspect of English that is not really an 'organic feature' of the living language but only a superimposed prescriptivism was moved to chat (along with that whole comments section) and can now be found here: Part 1: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/38648475#38648475 Part 2: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/38648477#38648477 – English Student Jul 8 '17 at 23:50
  • I would say that "Whom did you give the book to?", even though it is grammatically correct, sounds a bit strange because it is not consistent. What I mean is that the structure with the preposition at the end, clinging to the verb, is less formal than the structure with the verb at the beginning, before the relative pronoun, but the object relative pronoun 'whom' is more formal than the object relative pronoun 'who'. So it is not consistent to be more formal (because of the choice of word) and less formal (because of the choice of structure) in the same sentence! – user58319 Nov 22 '17 at 9:40
  • Similarly, "To who did you give the book?" would also sound strange... and is even grammatically incorrect! Just like "Who did you give the book to?", in fact, but since a great many native speakers of English make the mistake, because they do not analyse the sentence in order to know what the function of the relative pronoun is (subject or object), and since – for the sake of political correctness, probably – no-one is ever wrong in English, wrong has become right. – user58319 Nov 22 '17 at 9:46
  • I'm afraid that nowadays "To whom did you give the book?" and more so "It is I" violate probably a more serious rule of English: Orwell's Sixth. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 18 at 18:43

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