148

I can never figure out whether I should use who and whom. Most people use who for both colloquially, but some people say this is not correct.

What’s the rule for using who and whom correctly?

  • 6
    Whether to use 'whom' is subjective. – Colonel Panic Mar 11 '13 at 15:49
  • 14
    One need never use whom, and if one is even a little bit dubious about a situation, one should certainly not use whom there. That's the rule. The simple rule. If you insist on zombie rules, be aware you're late to the game, and there are lots more zombie rules out there already. Whom has kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible. This is an ex-pronoun. Let it lie in peace. – John Lawler Sep 1 '14 at 19:31
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    @JohnLawler There were some policemen, several of who were armed? This seems to be a situation in which whom is usually still required, eg when it's the object of a preposition. – Araucaria Oct 10 '14 at 9:38
  • 1
    You can construct situations where it's required, but they're never obligatory. If you Pied Pipe the preposition, then, yes, in that case, whom is required, because it's the object of a preposition. But that's the only situation and it's easily avoided: There were some policemen; several of them were armed. – John Lawler Oct 10 '14 at 15:26
  • 11
    @Araucaria - I agree with your assessment for this situation. John Lawler's workaround is a) an unnecessary contrivance, apparently born purely out of his hatred for 'whom'; and b) rather inelegant. To me, There were some policemen, of which several were armed seems stylistically better. – Erik Kowal Dec 15 '14 at 2:50

11 Answers 11

159

The easy way to tell which is technically correct is to substitute he and him for who and whom, then rearrange the word order to see which sounds right.

“Who were you speaking to?” becomes “You were speaking to he” — which is clearly incorrect.

  • 48
    +1 - the fact that "him" and "whom" both end in an "m" makes this easy to remember. – Matt Hamilton Aug 5 '10 at 22:21
  • 7
    "they"/"them" can be used in place of "he"/"him" for this test as well. – Isaac Aug 6 '10 at 0:50
  • 8
    These sorts of tests work because "who" is for subjects and "whom" is for objects. – Pops Aug 6 '10 at 19:08
  • 22
    learn a highly inflected language like German or Russian which will make the English who/whom issue trivially easy – Edward Tanguay Aug 7 '10 at 13:22
  • 34
    @Edward:... though learning German or Russian in order to solve this particular problem is not exactly trivial. :-) – Steve Melnikoff Aug 26 '10 at 12:13
159
+50

Short answer: When in doubt, use who. It's disconcerting to hear whom where who is expected, but the usage of who in situations where previously whom was standard has been increasing, especially in spoken usage.

Longer answer: The traditional rule is that whom was to be used in the "objective case". What this means in practice (it's even controversial whether English has cases), is that you try to answer the question: if the answer is he, she, they, I, we, etc., you use who. If the answer is him, her, them, me, us, etc., you use whom.

Examples:

  • "The man who spoke yesterday…", not "the man whom spoke…" ("He spoke" is correct; "Him spoke" is not.)

  • "Whom did you see?", not "Who did you see?" ("I saw him", not "I saw he".) The latter is frequently common these days, though.

The Language Log posts (1, 2, 3) linked in another answer, as well as William Safire quoted on the Wikipedia page, recommend avoiding whom or recasting your sentence if it seems necessary.

Someone using whom in place of who is likely to be interpreted as a hypercorrection from linguistic insecurity (and Geoff Pullum at the Language Log agrees), while using who in place of whom is, at worst, being too colloquial (and at best, being hip and cool!). Summary: it's good to know which is which and use them correctly, but when in doubt, use who.

  • 29
    +1. Great answer, and much more useful than the currently top-voted, accepted one. Just stating the traditional grammar rule is far less interesting than explaining how the language is nowadays used and what is considered correct and "natural". – Jonik Aug 9 '10 at 12:46
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    +1 (thanks to @RiMMER's bounty) This is my favorite answer here. – Daniel Oct 27 '11 at 0:59
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    Thanks for participating, guys! I've awarded this answer the bounty! – RiMMER Nov 1 '11 at 21:29
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    It's worth pointing out that it's always safe to use whom immediately following a preposition. E.g.: "There were 5 candidates, 3 of whom have dropped out." sounds natural to me (who broadly prefers who), whereas of who sounds odd. – Mechanical snail Jul 25 '12 at 1:11
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    @JeffLockhart: Your latter comment is correct and the former wrong: "many of whom" is what follows from the rules mentioned in these answers. You'd say "many of them", not "many of they", and similarly you'd say "many of us", not "many of we". Similarly, "many of whom", not "many of who", is the traditionally correct answer. (But as always, when in doubt use "who".) – ShreevatsaR Jul 24 '15 at 21:16
27

"Whom remains in significant use following a preposition" but use in objective case is moribund. The Wikipedia article on "who" has a detailed explanation.

The death of "whom" has been tracked on Language Log over the years. For example, here and here.

More examples:

  • 3
    Nothing is authoritative. But Language Log is produced by respected academic linguists. – Colin Fine Sep 24 '14 at 18:22
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    Some things are more authoritative than others. It's subjective and a matter of degree, but not meaningless. Authors of Language Log are respected academic linguists, but they don't necessarily get their posts extensively reviewed before publication, so it's perhaps not as authoritative as some books or journal articles. – bdsl Aug 21 '16 at 13:54
10

Who and whom also happen to be relative pronouns. Relative pronouns link noun phrases (NP) to relative clauses (RC).

Who is the subject pronoun, and it has its object form whom and possessive form whose. Who and whom refer to people only.

For the last half century or so who has been used more and more for both positions: subject and object. Whom, on the other hand, is used as an object or as the complement of a preposition in formal contexts.

  • That is the repairmen who fixed your car.
  • Your friend Alex and his wife Samantha, whom he courted for so long, are getting a divorce.

Which is another relative pronoun, but not used for persons. Even though I have seen several very good writers use and get away with it.

Whose is the easiest relative pronoun to use: it can be used for people, animals, and things.

  • 1
    Wow, an answer that isn't full of rubbish. +1 from me. – Araucaria Jul 18 '16 at 23:27
3

This is an attempt to also formulate an answer to my own recent question which was marked as a duplicate:

How do I choose between ‘who’ or ‘whom’ when the subject pronoun is murky?

I am still working on this subject but what I have managed to grasp is the following;

'who' is a subject pronoun and 'whom' is an object pronoun

as explained by Professor Malcolm Gibson's article Who is correct? Yes, though it may depend on whom you ask! which I referenced in two of my answers on ELU regarding who/whom: therefore an example of a practical approach that I would suggest at present would be

  1. Look at the verb that requires who/whom:
    if the verb needs a subject pronoun, select ‘who’. If the verb does not need a subject pronoun, see whether it is a transitive or an intransitive verb.

  2. If it is a transitive verb, it needs an object pronoun: so select ‘whom’

  3. If it is an intransitive verb or a linking verb, it does not need an object pronoun: so select ‘who’.

  4. In more complex sentences having multiple verbs, the choice of who/whom depends on whether the clause as a whole takes a subject pronoun or an object pronoun.


Appendix: Explanatory notes

The so-called ‘simple substitution rule’ given in earlier answers works especially well in simple sentences, as does my own method highlighted above. Problems arise when the sentence does not obviously require a subject pronoun, and the concerned verb is moreover not obviously transitive, making it difficult to decide whether it needs an object pronoun.

As @Peter Shor pointed out in the comments, problems also arise when the sentence has more than one verb, in which case the problem is how to decide which verb ‘who/whom’ would apply to: to determine which, some element of contextual reading and deconstruction might be required.

Example: “These are the men who they believe conspired to rob a bank.” – Peter Shor

Decoding this sentence, “what do they believe?” – “they believe (that) these men conspired to rob a bank.”

Whom is not to be used after ‘these are the men’ because the object of the transitive verb ‘believe’ is not ‘these men’ but the object clause, “these men conspired to rob a bank.”

Now it is notable that changing any verb other than 'believe' will not change the choice of who/whom: not even if a transitive verb like '(they) saw', which makes ‘these men’ its object, were to replace ‘conspired’; as in

they believe (that) they saw these men rob the bank:

these are the men who they believe they saw rob the bank.

Why not ‘whom’, since they saw these men? Aren't these the men whom they saw rob the bank? Not exactly, because they only 'believe' so – and the object of the verb ‘believe’ is again not ‘these men’ but the object clause 'they saw these men rob the bank' – in short, ‘these men’ never being the object of ‘believe’, ‘whom’ is not to be selected here.

Modifying the use of ‘believe’ a little will, however, change the choice of who/whom:

They believe these men to have conspired to rob the bank.

‘These men’ having finally become the object of ‘believe’, ‘whom’ is now required here.

These are the men (whom) they believe to have conspired to rob the bank.

Thus we might conclude, as @Andrew Leach suggested in a comment on my recent who/whom question, that

(4) in more complex sentences having multiple verbs, the choice of who/whom depends on whether the clause as a whole takes a subject pronoun or an object pronoun [paraphrase].

Expert members please evaluate this method and post comments suggesting corrections/improvements to the practical approach I have highlighted in this answer.

  • 3
    The only problem with your answer is, if there are multiple verbs in the sentence, which verb? "These are the men who they believe conspired to rob a bank." – Peter Shor Jul 16 '17 at 13:34
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    @Peter Shor yes indeed that's the problem, the solution to which was suggested by Andrew Leach in a comment on my latest question: in more complex sentences having multiple verbs, the choice of who/whom will depend on whether the clause as a whole takes a subject pronoun or an object pronoun. Please note I have quoted you and analyzed your example sentence in my answer. – English Student Jul 16 '17 at 15:45
  • And you need to figure out whom to believe. No one seems to give a you-know-what about writing versus speaking. If you are writing a historical treatise, for example, I'd say very prescriptively, you better get them right. For the rest, it does not matter. – Lambie Apr 24 '18 at 17:17
  • In short 'who and whom' has become simply a matter of formality @Lambie, and it seems that native speakers have abandoned 'whom' except for the most formal writing. Still it confuses the non-native learner, and we are regularly getting new (duplicate) who & whom questions on both ELU and ELL. – English Student Apr 24 '18 at 21:05
  • Native speakers may not use it much but it is still used. I just heard two talking heads use it on CNN last night...so... – Lambie Apr 30 '18 at 21:11
2

If you want to sound very studious and correct (but also quite stuffy), use "who" when it's functioning as a subject and "whom" when it's functioning as an object.

Examples:

  1. With whom are you going to the store?
  2. Who is the boss around here?

I have to admit, while I still argue in favor of the subjunctive mood and some other finer, old-school, points of style, I've given up on who/whom and use "who" for everything, except in formal writing. I still use it properly in a few constructions (e.g. "...with whomever you wish"), but I mostly have given up on it as a lost cause, and maybe not a worthwhile cause to begin with.

  • The thing is, though, most people would actually say: Who are you going to the store with? And not with who or with whom... – Lambie Apr 24 '18 at 17:14
  • Well, here you get into the age-old question of description vs prescription. Should rules follow usage or direct it? – jamesnotjim Apr 30 '18 at 18:26
2

Unfortunately, there is no single rule for using who vs. whom "correctly"; or at least, if there is one, it's a pretty complicated rule that can't be boiled down to just one easy test. (And as other people have pointed out, there are problems with the idea that the use of who in situations where the "rule(s)" call for whom can be characterized as "colloquial" or "incorrect".)

The "substitute he and him for who and whom, then rearrange the word order to see which sounds right" test that moioci mentions in the accepted answer is fine as a rule of thumb that usually points to the right answer, but I wanted to make it clear that it isn't always correct.

I would strongly recommend reading the Wikipedia article that nohat♦ linked to in his answer.

Here are a few of the relevant exceptions to the "substitute he and him for who and whom" rule that are covered there and in some other places on the web.

It is not standard to use whom predicatively in the same way as him

People often say things like "It was him", where the "accusative" pronoun him is used predicatively in a clause with the "nominative" subject it. But it is not considered correct to use whom as a predicate in sentences like Who was it? Who am I? Who are they?

The only situation where it might be considered correct from a traditional prescriptivist standpoint to use whom predicatively is when there is an "accusative" subject, which occurs in some sentences with a non-finite form of the copular verb be; for example, "Who(m) did you want him to be?" And in reality, sentences of this type are very rare, and who is often used instead of whom when the pronoun comes at the start of an interrogative sentence, so I doubt a descriptive grammarian would even recognize this as a possible exception to the general pattern of using who as a predicative complement.

Prescriptive guides are against using whom as the subject of a clause embedded in the relative clause, but descriptivist sources say that whom is fairly common in this context

Another issue is the use of who vs. whom in sentences that have a relative clause that itself contains another embedded clause.

The example given by Wikipedia is

Beethoven, who you say was a great composer, wrote only one opera.

The main clause of this sentence is "Beethoven [...] wrote only one opera", with "Beethoven" as the subject. The relative clause is "who you say was a great composer", with "you" as the subject. The clause embedded in the relative clause is "who ... was a great composer", with "who" as the subject.

Because "who" is the subject of the clause embedded in the relative clause, prescriptivist grammarians say the "nominative case" form who, rather than whom, should be used. This conforms to the "he-him" rule: we would say "you say he was a great composer" and not "you say him was a great composer".

However, in practice, many speakers/writers use whom in contexts like this, apparently following a different rule that goes something like "use whom when the pronoun comes before the subject of a relative clause".

There are some other questions on this site about this topic:

User F.E. left some comments beneath "The use of nominative 'whom'" that seem to accurately represent the descriptivist position, so I have copied them below (with minor formatting changes):

You might be interested in the topic of nominative 'whom'. It is often covered by a decent usage dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's (Concise) Dictionary of English Usage. One such example, in MWCDEU entry "who, whom", page 782: "Aikman will always have a chilly relationship with coach Barry Switzer, whom Aikman believes is too soft when it comes to player discipline" -- Peter King, Sports Illustrated, 1997.

This topic of "who versus whom", where the word is the subject of an embedded content clause is discussed in the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), pages 466-7, where the nominative 'whom' is used by "Dialect B" speakers. CGEL states "That this is another place, however, where it is invalid to talk in terms of hypercorrection. . . . It has to be accepted as an established variant of the standard language."

And so, it seems to me that reasonable arguments could probably be made to consider that example in your post to be acceptable in today's standard English.

Perhaps I ought to explicitly mention that "Dialect A" usage (where speakers would use "who" in your example) is mentioned by the 2002 CGEL on page 467 as: "Dialect A, which selects nominative, has more speakers and is the one recommended by the manuals, but there is no reason to say that it is inherently better or more grammatically correct than Dialect B, which selects accusative: the dialects just have different rules."

  • 1
    "It was him" should be: "It was he." But, that is another old rule which is commonly ignored. – Patrick Parker Jul 27 '18 at 16:50
0

Have a look at this:

1 the man + he robbed the bank > the man who robbed the bank

2 the man + we saw him yesterday > the man whom we saw yesterday

This is correct elevated style. "whom" tends to be replaced by "who" and can be omitted altogether.

-3

Who is used as the subject of a verb. It's a nominative pronoun. Example:

It was Ben who damaged the car.

While writing a sentence, first find the verb(s). In this sentence, the verbs are was and Ben. Now find the subject of each verb: Ben and who. Since who is a subject, it's correct.

Whom is used as the object of the verb/preposition. It is an objective pronoun. Example:

You asked whom to wash the car?

In this case, the verb is asked. The object of the verb is whom. Therefore it is correct.

There is another way for this rule. Follow this link:
Who vs. Whom.

  • "Ben" is not a verb. "Was" is a verb, but it's not related to "who(m)" in the first sentence, because they are in different clauses. – sumelic Apr 16 '17 at 5:10
-3

Who is the subject of what you say; whom is the object...

"Who is driving? Adolf is!"
"To whom are you talking while he's driving? To Adolf!"

  • 3
    Hello, DAVE. This doesn't add to previous answers, and in fact 'whom' here is more accurately the object of the preposition (rather than of 'what you say'). And 'Who did you speak to at the conference?' is idiomatic nowadays. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '16 at 15:32
  • Yes ! but I gave another illustration with both who & whom... But I don't think "who did you speak to" would be fine and that's why we have this kind of question above. "who did you speak to" is familiar ; you don't want to write it far away your fridge :) – DAVE Feb 19 '16 at 16:06
  • 1
    I don't think I'd ever use 'Whom did you speak to?' It now sounds almost if not actually unnatural. 'To whom are you speaking?' sounds a little better. But people use 'Who did you speak to?' even when they don't take their fridge with them. // But I repeat: this answer adds nothing (other than 'I agree with ...') to previous ones; it should be given as a 'comment', if at all. It's in danger of being down- or close-voted. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '16 at 16:21
  • Sorry ! I don't know how to use this site yet... //Whatever, I don't use either "Whom did you speak to" but "With/to whom did you speak". However, "Who or whom did you marry ?" is fine because I guess a direct verb like to marry does not need a final "to". For, ex. "who did you kill ?" is right. I think it's only when we have a sharp direct expression we may use who + verb + subject, instead of a "whom". Other way, I feel useless to start on a direct mode with "who" to finish with words after the verb... In such case, then we should not start with a simple "who" which is not active subject. – DAVE Feb 19 '16 at 17:05
  • You might be interested in these Google Ngrams. In raw Google searches, "who did you speak to" is almost ten times as popular as "to whom did you speak". – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '16 at 19:47
-4

Interrogative Pronoun Who: In fact, if the use of who/whom seems now rather clear we still have to explain this use of the who object when it starts a question ; ie. the who which is here for whom is not subject.

  1. But first aid : there is no *who instead of a logical whom (object) directly after a preposition. "To who do you write ?" Niet! This is easy, but what about: "For you do you care ?" To be honest, I'm sure we all used at least once, but it's still niet!
  2. The accusative form—whom—should be the valid one at least when you write your question, but if you do that in a brief, I am not sure to say it in court; unless when the speaker takes his time.
  3. But if you rush the witness, or if you're familiar you want to be direct so you ask: "Who did you kill ?"

This nominative is perfect like the accusative whom. Also, don't think "whom did you see ?" would be pendantic!

In short & direct construction of your question, the sharp style is either "Who(m) did they meet?" with a predilection for the nominative simple who. However, if your expression has to be blunted with final preposition, the accusative should prevail : "For whom is it ?" outperforms "Who is it for ?"

Well, I guess we've have almost done, unless we need to see "who's who?" ; "Who'll marry who?" & "who said it must be crazy".

  • I'm sorry, but the answer is written confusingly, it's too chatty and Niet?. And why have you posted two answers, couldn't you have edited your day-old answer? – Mari-Lou A Feb 20 '16 at 17:12
  • NIET means NO in RUSSIAN, I thought it could be fun... Chatty... OK BUT 2 answers because here we have the new question of the who for a whom. – DAVE Feb 20 '16 at 18:21

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