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What's the rule for using "who" or "whom"?

Which is correct?

A certificate is a statement that states who is entitled.

A certificate is a statement that states whom is entitled.

Is who a subject?


Forgetting for a moment about the technicalities of whether it is a subject or an object, if you use the rule of thumb of trying he/him it is clear that it should be "he is entitled" not "him is entitled". As such it should be "who".

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    yes, that test is amazingly helpful! But then I am still stuck on trying to figure out if it is a subject or object! For the purposes of getting the sentence down on paper and moving on with my life, your answer gets the job done -- thanks! But now I am still trying to figure it out for curiosity! – kev Sep 5 '11 at 17:40
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    @kev: This test works because it correctly identifies the function of the relative pronoun as subject in the relative clause. Remember that the whole relative clause has a function within the main clause (in this case, object of "states"), and the relative pronoun itself has a different function, within the relative clause (in this case, subject of "is"). These two functions are entirely independent. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Sep 5 '11 at 17:54
  • I'm always amazed at which answers get upvoted. Thanks! – neil Sep 6 '11 at 11:10

In American English, whom is only used as the object of a preposition, if used at all. In your example, who is entitled is a nominal phrase taking the role of direct object of the verb state which is part of the relative clause modifying statement.

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    Whom is also used as the direct object of a verb: Whom did you see? – Daniel Sep 5 '11 at 17:40
  • Oh, that's interesting... (two minute pass while I stare off into space and think of examples). Yes! I like it! Thanks! So I could say, "My wife, who I love, is pretty." but not "My wife, whom I love, is pretty." Right? – kev Sep 5 '11 at 17:42
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    it depends on whether you are interested in prescriptive or descriptive grammar, and whether you are interested in British or American English. In American English, whom is dying quickly and few use it any more, even in formal writing. British English still uses it, but I believe its prevalence is decreasing there as well. In fact, American English speakers go out of their way to use it as the object of a preposition by rearranging something like For whom did you buy it into Who did you buy it for which many British English speakers feel is apauling English. – user12549 Sep 5 '11 at 17:49
  • @myqlarson: I don't think there's a particularly British/American distinction here (IMHO Brits are less "prescriptive" anyway). Use of "whom" is simply declining. – FumbleFingers Sep 5 '11 at 18:09
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    @The Raven do you have any evidence? here's mine: ngrams.googlelabs.com/… – user12549 Sep 6 '11 at 1:24

What counts is that 'who' is if you like the 'local' subject of clause ("who is entitled") in which it sits. To help you see where the clauses are, you could try turning the sentence round, e.g. turning the sentence round as follows more clearly indicates that the clause [Who is entitled] itself forms a constituent that is the subject of the main sentence:

[ Who is entitled ] is what is stated.

So, according to the most common form of the traditional, arbitrary, prescriptive rule regarding "who" vs "whom", "who" would be used in this case.

But it is just a traditional, arbitrary prescriptive rule. There's no compulsion to follow it. So if you really can't decide, then I would suggest a really simply rule that you'll never get wrong:

Proposed rule regarding 'whom' that you will never get wrong: Never use whom; always use who instead.

It's a nice, simple rule that reliably produces sentences that sound natural to native speakers of English.

  • I refuse to retitle 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' (it would be illegal anyway). – Edwin Ashworth Dec 19 '15 at 17:26
  • It's not arbitrary. Who comes from an Old English word, and whom comes from the dative (or objective) form of that word. – Rodney Atkins Mar 15 '16 at 14:14
  • @RodneyAtkins - Inasmuch as that is true, a rule to artificially add "m" to "who" in presentday English is still arbitrary: it is not part of the language as "naturally" acquired by native speakers; the circumstances under which "whom" is prescribed are essentially arbitrary; no other word in the language is given this special treatment; and no other vestiges of historic forms of "who" are prescribed. – Neil Coffey Mar 19 '16 at 11:12

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