Who and Whom

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  • Nancy Tuten

    20 April 2017

    Who and Whom

    One of these days (and I hope I’m dead and gone), the word whom will be designated by dictionaries as archaic, a relic from a bygone time.  That’s how language works, and I’m OK with that reality.

    Until then, if you wish to use both who and whom, here is a short article that should help you decide in which situations you should use each one.


    Let’s start with a quiz: Which of these sentences appropriately uses .who or .whom?

    1. We will give the money to the person who needs it most.
    2. We have filed a complaint against the contractor who we hired last month.
    3. No one knows who you are.
    4. Who are you calling?
    5. Who is at the door?
    6. We will be kind to whomever knocks on our door for help.
    7. Whomever we elect for president will be in office for four years.

    All the odd numbered sentences are correct.

    Before we go over the four-step trick for getting .who and .whom right every time, let’s look at the grammatical difference between these words, keeping in mind that whoever and whomever function just as who and whom do. (All of you who are grammarphobic, please skip right on down to the trick!)

     

    Who and whoever will always be either the subject or the predicate pronoun of their own clauses. (A subject and a verb comprise a clause.) Thus, in sentence 1, “who needs it most” is correct because who is the subject of the verb needs. In sentence 3, who is the predicate pronoun of the clause “who you are.” (Because of the linking verb are, the clause says “you = who.”) Sentence 5 is correct because who is the subject of the verb is.

     

    Whom and whomever will always serve as objects. Sentence 2 is incorrect because in the clause “who we hired last month,” the subject is we, the verb is hired, and the object of that verb is whom. Likewise, in sentence 4, the subject is you and the object of the verb are calling is whom. In normal order, the clause reads “we are calling whom.” Here are corrected versions of sentences 2 and 4:

    • We have filed a complaint against the contractor whom we hired last month.
    • Whom are you calling?

    Sentence 7 correctly employs whomever as the object of its own clause, “Whomever we elect for president.” The subject is we, the verb is elect, and the direct object is whomever. In normal order, the clause reads “we elect whom.”

    Here is the four-step trick for getting these words straight every time:

    Step 1: Isolate the clause containing the who(ever) or whom(ever). (Some sentences that ask questions, such as 4 and 5 above, have only one clause.)

    Step 2: Ignore the part of the sentence that is not in the who(ever) or whom(ever) clause.

    Step 3: In place of the word who(ever) or whom(ever), insert the words he and him and see which one sounds better. (Sorry, ladies, we can’t use she and her because her doesn’t end with an “m,” and the trick won’t work.)

    Step 4: If he sounds better, then choose who(ever). If him sounds better, then choose whom(ever). Remember that the “m” words (him and whom) go together.

    Let’s try the trick on sentence 1:

    1. Isolate the who/whom clause: We will give the money to the person [who needs it most].
    2. Ignore the rest of the sentence outside the bracketed clause.
    3. Plug in he and him and see which sounds better: “he needs it most” or “him needs it most”?
    4. Obviously, he sounds better, so our choice will be who.

    Let’s try it on sentence 7:

    1. Isolate the whoever/whomever clause: [Whomever we elect for president] will be in office for four years.
    2. Ignore the rest of the sentence outside the bracketed clause.
    3. Plug in he and him and see which sounds better: “we elect he for president” or “we elect him for president”?
    4. Obviously, him sounds better, so our choice will be whom—or, in this sentence, whomever.

    The trick works even when the who or whom refers to a group of people; simply use they and them instead of he and him. The “m” words still go together: them, him, whom, and whomever.

     

    We get in trouble, though, if we forget step 2 of the trick and do not ignore the part of the sentence that is outside the who/whom clause. Notice what would have happened if we had made that mistake with sentence 6 and said “we will be kind to him” instead of “he knocks on our door for help.” We would have incorrectly chosen whomever instead of whoever.

    Fewer and fewer people are using the word .whom, and one day the word will likely be considered archaic. And even now most people choose the less formal who over whom in informal contexts. The four-step trick should serve us well in more formal or professional situations, though it is probably always better to choose who over whom if there is any doubt. The writer who uses whom in situations calling for who looks less competent than the writer who may simply be perceived as being less formal with the use of who.

    One last thought: When referring to people and animals with names—pets, for example—use who (or whom) instead of that or which.

    Test Yourself:

    Which word—who, whom, whoever, or whomever—belongs in each blank?

    1. She was asked to keep track of (whoever, whomever) came in late to work each day.
    2. (Whoever, Whomever) finishes the project first can leave work early.
    3. (Who, Whom) shall I say is calling? [With questions, it is a good idea to make statements out of them before trying to decide which word to use: "I should say (who, whom) is calling.”]
    4. (Whoever, Whomever) she selects as project manager will have to work many long nights.
    5. We are pleased with the person (who, whom) she has chosen to be the office manager.
    ANSWERS
    1. She was asked to keep track of whoever came in late to work each day. [<[he came in late to work each day]li>
    2. Whoever finishes the project first can leave work early. [<[he finishes the project first]li>
    3. Who shall I say is calling? [<[he is calling]li>
    4. Whomever she selects as project manager will have to work many long nights. [s[she selects him as project manager]li>
    5. We are pleased with the person whom she has chosen to be the office manager. [s[she has chosen him to be the office manager]li>

    Copyright 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2018.

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