Who vs. Whom

Grammar & Punctuation

Has this ever happened to you?

You: “Hi. May I ask who I’m talking to?”

Some grammar-prude: “Uh, I think you mean ‘To whom am I speaking.’”

You: “Oh. Nevermind, I really don’t want to talk to you anymore.  Bye.”

from Wikipedia

from Wikipedia

If you’re like me, then you hate when people correct your spoken grammar.   But in formal writing, knowing how to employ proper grammar can mean the difference between just getting your point across and really driving it home.  Taking the time to learn and follow the rules shows your audience that you care about your writing, and they will take you more seriously because of it.  So even though the word “whom” has pretty much dropped out of spoken English entirely, it is still important to learn when to use it, if for no other reason than to impress people with your sophisticated grammar.

The difference between “who” and “whom” is actually pretty simple.  “Who” is a pronoun in subject-case.  “Whom” is the same pronoun in object-case.  If the word appears as the subject of a clause (i.e. the thing that’s doing an action), you want to stick with “who.”  If, on the other hand, the word appears as the object of a clause (i.e. the thing that’s receiving the action), you want to use “whom.”

Let’s look at some examples.

Example 1: Who wants to make me a sandwich?

  Here, “Who” is the subject of the verb “wants.”  The person represented by the pronoun is the person doing the wanting.

Example 2: The person who answers that question is clearly just trying to impress me with his or her superior sandwich-making prowess.

Again, “who” is acting as a subject, this time to the subordinate clause “who answers that question.” 

Example 3: Whom should I pick to make me a sandwich?

In this sentence, “Whom” functions as an object, because “I” am the one performing the action of picking.  “Whom” receives the action.

Example 4: The person whom I chose to make me a sandwich forgot the mayo, and thus will never make me a sandwich again.

In this example, “whom” is the object of the verb “chose.”  Note that in this sentence, we could opt to drop “whom” completely, and the sentence would still be correct. 

If you get stuck, ask yourself if the person represented by the pronoun is doing something.  If so, you are correct in using “who.”  If, however, the person represented by the pronoun is being acted upon, you want to use “whom.”  “Who” is active; “whom” is not.

Remember: Who likes do to things.  Whom likes having things done to him.

For an easy way to remember the difference, take a look at this video:

Casey, peer tutor