The difference between “who” and “whom” stumps a lot of people—experienced writers and grammatical newbs alike. “Who vs. whom” is one of the most commonly Googled usage questions, with almost fifty thousand searches a month!
Does the Difference between Who and Whom Matter?
Perhaps because of this uncertainty, most of us don’t even bother with “whom” these days. “Whom” has grown so out of fashion that the OED—the Oxford English Dictionary, an authority on the English language—says that “whom” is “no longer current in natural colloquial speech.”
What this means is that no one really says “whom” anymore. Just using “who” is considered acceptable in most informal circumstances.
But many schools, publishers, and news organizations still maintain a distinction between the two. So while some say “whom” is going the way of the dodo, it’s important to know when to use it in case you find yourself writing for a business or other organization that maintains a formal writing style.
So what’s the difference between “who” and “whom”? Let’s get into it.
Who Vs Whom — What’s the Difference?
“Who” and “whom” are both pronouns, which means they’re substitutes for nouns. Pronouns include the words “he,” “it,” “you,” “what,” and many more!
|Grammar Sidebar: What’s a Pronoun? 🤔|
|Pronouns stand in for nouns. Nouns are things, objects, people, ideas. |
People get pronouns like “she” and “they.” Objects get pronouns like “it” and “that.”
For example, if I’m talking about a table, I can start to call it by the pronoun “it.” That way, I don’t have to keep saying “the table.” I can say,
“I’m sitting at the table. I like it because it is sturdy.”
Specifically, “who” and “whom” refer to people, like the pronouns “he/him,” “she/her,” “they/them,” and “we/us.”
Here’s the difference between “who” and “whom”:
“Who” is for subjects and “whom” is for objects.
But what does that mean?
Subjects and Objects
In grammar, a subject is a noun or pronoun that is doing something, that is acting. An object is a noun or pronoun that is having something done to it, that is receiving the action of a verb. An object may also be the object of a preposition, like “with,” “on,” “under,” etc.
An easy example to grasp is the difference between “he” and “him”: “He” refers to a subject and “him” refers to an object.
Example of a subject:
He emails Cindy.
In this sentence, we use the subject “he” because he is doing something. He does the action “emails.”
Example of an object:
Cindy emails him.
In this sentence, we use the object “him” because something is being done to him. He receives the action of the verb “emails.”
Example of an object of a preposition:
Cindy writes the email for him.
In this sentence, we use the pronoun him because it is the object of the preposition “for.”
When to Use Who (with Examples)
Use “who” as a subject — a noun that is doing some action. Let’s look at some examples:
Example of When to Use Who #1
INCORRECT: Whom writes these TPS reports?
CORRECT: Who writes these TPS reports?
“Who” is doing the action of the verb, “writes.”
Example of When to Use Who #2
INCORRECT: Any person whom wants to run for president must be 35 or older.
CORRECT: Any person who wants to run for president must be 35 or older.
“Who” is doing the action of the verb “wants.”
When to Use Whom (with Examples)
Use “whom” as an object — a noun that is receiving the action of a verb or is the object of a preposition.
Example of When to Use Whom #1
INCORRECT: Maria loves who?
CORRECT: Maria loves whom?
“Whom” receives the action of the verb “loves.”
Example of When to Use Whom #2
INCORRECT: I’ll ask Ernie for who the bell tolls.
CORRECT: I’ll ask Ernie for whom the bell tolls.
“Whom” is the object of the preposition “for.”
Whew. Subjects and objects and prepositions, oh my! That’s a lot of grammar to remember.
Fortunately, we’ve got a simple trick for remembering when to use “who” and when to use “whom.”
The Trick to Remembering the Difference between “Who” and “Whom”
For the most part, people intuitively use pronouns like “he/him,” “she/her,” and “they/them,” in the right way. Most of the time, we get our subjects and objects right without even thinking about it!
Most native English speakers would never say, “Her walked the dog,” or, “The dog barked at they” — that just doesn’t sound good!
But the who/whom distinction trips us up. Never fear! We’ve got a tool to keep us from tripping over the who/whom stumbling block. In fact, the pronouns “who/whom/whose” correlate to “he/him/his,” respectively—as well as to “she/her/hers,” “they/them/theirs,” “we/us/ours,” and “I/me/mine.”
The He/Him–Who/Whom Substitution
When you don’t know whether to use who or whom, try this simple trick:
Substitute “he/him” for “who/whom” — if you can use “he,” then use “who.” If you can use “him,” use “whom.”
You can easily remember this analogy because “he” and “who” both end with vowel sounds, while “him” and “whom” both end with the letter “m.” We stan a good mnemonic!
Let’s try out this substitution with a couple of examples.
Examples of the He/Him–Who/Whom Substitution
Because knowing when to use “he” vs “him” comes naturally to us, try substituting “he/him” for the “who/whom” in question to see which one is correct.
In the examples below, which is correct — who or whom?
He/Him Substitution Example #1
_____ writes books?
Because we would use “he,” we use “who.” Thus,
He writes books. = Who writes books?
He/Him Substitution Example #2
The book scared _____?
Ask yourself if we would use “he” or “him.” We would use “him,” so here we can use “whom.”
The book scared him. = “The book scared whom?
Remember: He = who, him = whom.
Who Vs Whom — The Final Verdict
While “whom” may not be common in everyday speech, it’s still an important part of formal writing.
Equipped with the knowledge that “who” refers to subjects and “whom” refers to objects, you’ll be riding the train to grammatical glory. But if you slip off the tracks, you’ve got a trick up your sleeve: the “he/him” substitution.
Remember: He = who and him = whom.
Now you’re someone who really knows their stuff, someone for whom grammar ain’t no thing.
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