When Do You Use “Who” vs. “Whom”?

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Over the last 200 years, the pronoun whom has been on a steady decline. Despite its waning use in speech and ongoing speculation about its imminent extinction, whom still holds a spot in the English language, particularly in formal writing. Understanding when and how to use this pronoun can set your writing apart.

If whom is on the decline, then who must be growing in popularity. The two—as you’ll recall from English class—are related and may seem interchangeable. But are they really?

Who vs. whom, what’s the difference?

Whom is often confused with who. Who is a subjective-case pronoun, meaning it functions as a subject in a sentence, and whom is an objective-case pronoun, meaning it functions as an object in a sentence.

When to use who

Who, like I, he, she, we, and they, is used as the subject of a sentence. That means it performs actions.

Examples of who in a sentence

See how who is used as a subject in different ways:

  • Who rescued the dog?
  • I’m not sure who called my name.
  • Do you know who baked this cake?

Who is doing the rescuing in the first sentence. Similarly, who called and who baked in the other examples.

When to use whom

Whom is a little trickier. Like me, him, her, us, and them, whom is the object of a verb or preposition. That means whom is acted on.

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Examples of whom in a sentence

See how whom acts as an object in each of these instances:

  • Whom did you see?
  • His grandchildren, whom he loves so much, are in town for a visit.
  • The cook, whom we just hired, failed to show up to work today.

In the first sentence, whom is being seen here, not doing the seeing. In the other examples, whom is being loved and hired. Whom is the direct object in all three sentences.

Take a look at these sentences:

  • She gave whom the package?
  • Whom should I call first?
  • My brother doesn’t remember whom he e-mailed the questions.

In these sentences, whom functions as an indirect object. That is the person on the receiving end of the action. For example, the package was given to someone. It was given to whom.

Whom also commonly appears when it follows a preposition, as in the salutation “To whom it may concern.” Does it concern he? No. Does it concern him? Yes.

When in doubt, substitute him (sometimes you’ll have to rephrase the sentence) and see if that sounds right. If him is OK, then whom is OK. If the more natural substitute is he, then go with who. For example: You talked to who/whom? It would be incorrect to say, “You talked to he?”, but saying, “You talked to him?” makes grammatical sense. So you would ask, “You talked to whom?”

All of that said, in informal speech and writing, speakers will often opt for who where whom has traditionally been used. This choice sounds more natural and less formal to most native English speakers.

 

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