Word Confusion: Who versus Whom

Posted March 12, 2015 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

For all the fuss that goes on about who versus whom, there really isn’t any reason for it, as poor whom is going by the wayside except for, ahem, guys who want to impress girls or very formal papers. Of course, if any of your characters are very well-educated or pretentious twats, they’ll use whom as well. So it behooves you to know where to go *grin* when you need to know which is what and when.

Case is who or whoever (subject); whom and whomever (objective); and, whose (possessive), and which choice you make depends somewhat upon the verbs.

Who

Think of who as the top of the pyramid, and it may become whoever, whom, whomever, or whose — personal or relative pronouns. Which one you use, depends upon case, whether the pronoun who changes into nominative (pronoun that is the subject of a sentence) or objective (pronoun that receives the action of a transitive verb or serves as the object of a preposition and functions as an object).

Who vs Whom Examples

The primary difference between who and whom is, ahem, whether the purpose of the sentence is to do things to the subject or do things to an object.

WhoI am running with I definitely being the subject in “who is running”.

WhomShe only invited those whom she thought could be useful to her which translates to “she invited them because they’d be useful”, so it becomes objective.

Which Says It Better?
Who Whom
Use who if I, you, she, he, we, or they replaces the subject of the sentence. Use whom if me, her, him, us, or them is the object of the sentence.
Who’s the surfer?

I think he was a surfer.

I think him was a surfer.

Who is going to do the dishes?

She is going to do the dishes.

Her is going to do the dishes.

He blamed they for the accident.

Whom did he blame for the accident?

He blamed them for the accident.

Is George inviting they to dinner?

Whom is George inviting to dinner on Friday?

Is George inviting them to dinner on Friday?

Who is that girl with Josh?

She is his sister.

Her is his sister.

We all know who pulled that prank!

She pulled that prank.

Her pulled that prank’ does not work.

I do you admire most

Whom do you admire most?

I admire him (or “her” or “them”).

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has given a statement to the police.

She cannot be named for legal reasons.

Her cannot be named for legal reasons isn’t right.

Who wrote the letter?

He wrote the letter.

Him wrote the letter.

Who is in the studio?

She is in the studio.

Her is in the studio” sounds ignorant.

Sometimes changing the sentence around can help you decide:
Joyce is the girl who got the job.

She got the job.

Mrs. Dimwit consulted an astrologer whom she met in Seattle.

She met him in Seattle.

The delegates differed as to who they thought might win.

They thought he might win.

Whom can we turn to in a time of crisis?

Can we turn to her?

Who do you think is going to win?

Can he win? ‘Cause “Can him win” ain’t gonna cut it.

Jones is the man with whom I went fishing last spring.

I went fishing with him.

Other “Who” Posts

To avoid confusions, there are other posts that explore the who versus … question, including:

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end. sharing this Word Confusion with friends by tweeting it.

Who Whom
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Vappingo

Cat licking himself

“Ziggy Licking Himself” is Soulbust’s own work [CC-BY-SA-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is Ziggy licking? He’s licking himself, the subject of the action.


Two cats with heads close together. One is sleeping and the other is licking the sleeping cat.

“Mici!” is Qbert88’s own work [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Whom is the cat licking?
Ah, she is licking him, the object of the action.

Part of Grammar:
Nominative (or Subjective) Case Pronoun:

  1. Interrogative Pronoun
  2. Relative Pronoun
  3. Restrictive Identifier
Objective Case Pronoun:

  1. Interrogative Pronoun
  2. Relative Pronoun
Subjective (Nominative) Case of who


Think of who as I, you, she, he, we, or they — the subject of your sentence, the one doing something


Forms the subjective case and is used in the subject position in a sentence when a verb is conjugated or if part of a linking verb.
Objective Case of whom


Think of whom as me, her, him, us, or them


Forms the objective case and is used in the object position in a sentence. The one that something is being done to
Interrogative Pronoun:
What or which person or people

Relative Pronoun:
Introduces a clause giving further information about a person or people previously mentioned

Restrictive Identifier:
Positively identifies someone

Interrogative OR Relative Pronoun:
Used as the object of a verb or preposition
Practice has who being used in either case in modern English. If you are writing a formal paper or formal dialog, pay attention to the proper use of who and whom.
Examples:
Interrogative Pronoun:
Who shall I say is calling?
Who is that woman?

She is that woman.

I am that woman.

Whom shall I say is calling?
Who decided this?
[Archaic] Who holds the sea, perforce doth hold the land.

Relative Pronoun:
Joan Fontaine plays the mouse who married the playboy.

Restrictive Identifier:
The man who shot my brother.

It specifically identifies who shot the brother.


The suspect in the lineup who has red hair committed the crime.

It’s the one with red hair who did it.

Interrogative Pronoun:
Whom did he marry?

He married me/her/him.


To whom do you wish to speak?

Whom do you think we should support?

Relative Pronoun:
Her mother, in whom she confided, said it wasn’t easy for her.

I learned nothing about the man whom I saw.

She is the woman to whom I owe my life.

Legend:

  1. Green indicates the pronoun
  2. Blue indicates the object of a verb
  3. Purple indicates the object of a preposition
History of the Word:
Before 900, Old English and Middle English hwā is cognate with the Old High German hwer, the Gothic hwas, and the Latin quis. Evolved from Old English hwām into Middle English and dative of hwā meaning who.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves?

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Other Resources

Over at The Week, James Harbeck has a fun look at who v. whom in his post, “How and when to use ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’: ‘Whom’ is just like ‘who’ with a bowtie on it“. It’s pretty funny and states that whom is simply not a concern anymore. Although Harbeck also suggests that girls get hot for a guy who uses whom. Just sayin’…

The University of Kansas has a couple of tips that help determine whether to use who or whom.

Another useful test is to replace who or whom with the third person pronoun.


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