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Who vs. Whom

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Overview:

Relative pronouns can be tricky, mostly because many writers are unclear about the specific rules regarding their use. Who and whom have garnered quite the reputation in the college classroom, and students often decide to completely eliminate whom from their vocabulary simply because they don’t understand how and when to use it. This handout will go over when to use each pronoun in different types of sentences and also give quick tips for remembering their different functions.

Who vs. Whom: The Basics

First things first: who and whom are both relative pronouns, which means that they function to connect a clause to the rest of a sentence. In other words, relative pronouns are found in sentences that contain more than one clause, and they relate to a specific word or phrase that they modify. Who and whom are usually used only in relation to people. In the following example, who relates to “an instructor,” and introduces the relative clause “who was the recipient of an award.”

      Last semester I took an instructor who was the recipient of an award.

Subject and Object Pronouns

When deciding whether to use who or whom, it is important to first recognize that who is used in reference to the subject of a sentence, and whom is used in reference to the object of a sentence. The subject is what performs the action in the sentence, and the object is the receiver of the action. Therefore, who relates to “he,” “she,” and “we” while whom relates to the pronouns “him,” “her,” and “us.” An easy way to remember this is to try to position object pronouns as subjects as shown in this example: “Him doesn’t like orange juice.” This should sound obviously incorrect to your ear, and that is because the word “him” can never perform an action; it must always receive it. The same goes for whom. In the following sentence, whom is the object of “cared for,” while “Michael” is the subject.

      I ran into Alicia last night, whom Michael cared for deeply.

      If this still sounds confusing, try to reword the clause with “her”: “Michael cared for her deeply.” 

This also goes for questions that begin with who or whom. Again, if you are not sure what acts as the subject or object in the clause, rephrase the question as a statement, replacing who/whom with he or him, and see which one fits.  Take a look at the examples below:

      Who ate my candy bar?

      He ate my candy bar.

          Or

      Whom did you have in mind for the new job listing?

      I had him in mind for the new job listing.

Compound Forms of Who/Whom

Who and whom function in the same way in their compound forms, whoever and whomever.

      Whoever volunteers to cover my shift is a great friend. (Whoever is the subject of “volunteers”)
       
      I support whomever you choose for the part. (Whomever is the object of “you choose”)

Style Matters:

Because whom is so uncommonly used in everyday speech, many consider its usage too formal, especially for a conversational-like narrative, such as a casual email or journal entry. Therefore, the usage of who where whom belongs is often overlooked because of our normal interpretation of the English language. However, when writing in an academic setting, you should strive to always maintain the most correct grammar usage even if it varies from how you would phrase the sentence in a normal conversation with friends. Remember, most academic writing is formal, so your sentence construction and word choices should reflect that.


Copyright (C) 2010. All rights reserved.
This handout is part of a library of instructional materials used in California State University, Long Beach’s writing center, the Writer’s Resource Lab. Educators and students are welcome to distribute copies as long as they do so with attribution to all organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is prohibited.