I hope I am dead and gone when it happens, but I fully realize that one day the word whom will be designated by dictionaries as archaic, a relic from a bygone time. Languages are dynamic, and as fewer people make the distinction between the nominative who and the objective whom, the latter will surely go the way of the dinosaur.
However, to paraphrase a line from Monty Python’s Spamalot, “Whom is not dead yet.”
In professional settings, we still need to know when to use who and when to use whom. Here are tips to help you make the right choice every time.
Let’s Start with a Who/Whom Quiz
Which of these sentences appropriately use who or whom?
- We will give the money to the person who needs it most.
- We have filed a complaint against the contractor who we hired last month.
- No one knows who you are.
- Who are you calling?
- Who is at the door?
- We will be kind to whomever knocks on our door for help.
- Whomever we elect for president will be in office for four years.
All the odd numbered sentences are correct.
The Grammar behind Who and Whom
Before we review the four-step trick for getting who and whom right every time, let’s look at the grammatical difference between these words. Keep in mind that the choice between whoever and whomever is the same as the choice between who and whom; the only difference is that who and whom are personal pronouns and whoever and whomever are indefinite pronouns (that is, they don’t point to a specific individual).
All of you who are grammar phobic may skip right on down to the trick.
Who and whoever will always be either the subject or the predicate pronoun (aka subject complement pronoun) of their own clauses. (Reminder: a subject and a verb comprise a clause. Here’s a video I made to explain the difference between a clause and a phrase.)
- 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.” We can’t have an object because there is no action expressed in the verb.)
- Sentence 5 is correct because “who” is the subject of the verb is.
Whom and whomever will always serve as objects (direct and indirect objects of action verbs, objects of prepositions, objects of verbals, etc.).
- Sentence 2 is incorrect because in the clause “who we hired last month,” the subject is we, the action verb is hired, and the object of that verb is whom. It should read, “We have filed a complaint against the contractor whom we hired last month.”
- Likewise, in sentence 4, the subject is you, and the direct object of the action verb “are calling“ is whom. In normal order, the clause reads “we are calling whom.” It should read, “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.”
A Little Knowledge Can Be Dangerous
Somewhere along the way, many people learned that whom/whomever always follows a preposition. In sentence 6, for example, they would have thought whomever is correct because it follows the preposition to. For this sentence and many like it, people stumble on the right answer about half the time, albeit for the wrong reason.
They are correct in seeing to as a preposition, and they are also correct in assuming that the preposition must have an object. The point they are missing is that the object of the preposition is sometimes an entire clause, not simply the one word immediately behind the preposition. The object of to in sentence 6 is the whole clause “whoever knocks on our door for help,” and in that clause, whoever is the subject of knocks. We call this a noun (or nominal) clause because it fills a slot in a sentence normally occupied by a one-word noun or a noun phrase.
Those with incomplete knowledge about prepositions, objects, and noun clauses have, of course, a 50/50 chance of choosing the right word anyway. But half the time they are wrong.
For example, in the sentence “I will give the book to whoever wants to read it,” the correct word is whoever, the subject of wants in its own clause. The object of the preposition to is the entire noun clause: “whoever wants to read it.”
The Four-Step Trick for Getting Who/Whom 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.*
- Step 4: If he sounds better, then choose who(ever). If them sounds better, then choose whom(ever). Remember that the m words (him and whom) go together.
Practice Using the Trick
Let’s try the trick on sentence 1:
- Isolate the who/whom clause: We will give the money to the person [who needs it most].
- Ignore the rest of the sentence outside the bracketed clause.
- Insert he and him and see which sounds better: “he needs it most” or “him needs it most”?
- Obviously, he sounds better, so our choice will be who.
Let’s try it on sentence 7:
- Isolate the whoever/whomever clause: [Whomever we elect for president] will be in office for four years.
- Ignore the rest of the sentence outside the bracketed clause.
- Insert he and him and see which sounds better: “we elect he for president” or “we elect him for president”?
- Obviously, him sounds better, so our choice will be whom—or, in this sentence, whomever.
What if “Who/Whom” Refers to a Group?
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.
*Note: With singular usages of who/whom, she and her won’t work because her doesn’t end with an m and can’t be associated with whom as easily as him can. To avoid reinforcing the gender binary, just use the plural they and them all the time.
Never Skip Step 2
We get in trouble if we forget step 2 and consider the part of the sentence outside the who/whom clause. (See the section above: A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing.)
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.
In sentence 7, it is also important to ignore the clause outside the whomever clause. The subject of the verb “will be in office” is the entire clause “whomever we elect for president,” not any one word in that clause.
Does Anyone Really Use “Whom” These Days?
As we said above, fewer and fewer people are using the word whom; most people choose the less formal who over whom even when the context calls for an object pronoun. But the four-step trick serves us well in more formal or professional situations.
When in doubt, it is usually better to choose who over whom. 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 in situations that warrant whom.
Use Who/Whom and Not That/Which for People and Pets
One last thought: When referring to people and animals with names (e.g., pets), use who (or whom), and reserve that and which for inanimate objects or unnamed animals.
Which word—who, whom, whoever, or whomever—belongs in each blank?
- She was asked to keep track of (whoever, whomever) came in late to work each day.
- (Whoever, Whomever) finishes the project first can leave work early.
- (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.”]
- (Whoever, Whomever) she selects as project manager will have to work many long nights.
- We are pleased with the person (who, whom) she has chosen to be the office manager.
- She was asked to keep track of whoever came in late to work each day. [he came in late to work each day]
- Whoever finishes the project first can leave work early. [he finishes the project first]
- Who shall I say is calling? [he is calling]
- Whomever she selects as project manager will have to work many long nights. [she selects him as project manager]
- We are pleased with the person whom she has chosen to be the office manager. [she has chosen him to be the office manager]
Copyright 2002 Get It Write. Revised 2019.