What is the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ – and how do you know which to use? This grammar question has stumped many native English speakers, so it is no surprise that non-native speakers find it difficult. ‘Whom’ is used to refer to the object of a preposition or verb. But how does this work in real life? Read on for an explanation of the grammar behind ‘who’ and ‘whom’, common misconceptions surrounding the ‘who or whom’ debate and useful examples of sentences showing when to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ – and when it is a personal choice.
When to use ‘who’ and when to use ‘whom’
The question of ‘who’ or ‘whom’ has long been debated by native English speakers. Grammatically, ‘who’ is a subject, while ‘whom’ is an object in the sentence.
There is an easy way to remember whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’. Simply ask yourself, can you can replace the word with ‘she/he’ (subject) or ‘her/him’ (object)?
If you can replace the word with ‘she’, use ‘who’. If you can replace the word with ‘her’, use ‘whom’.
Who is going to the theatre? (‘Who’ can be replaced here with ‘she’/’he’ – ‘She is going to the theatre’)
Who is going to the theatre with whom? (‘Whom’ can be replaced here with ‘her’/’him’ – ‘Who is going to the theatre with her?’)
When thinking about using ‘who’ or ‘whom’ in formal grammar, ‘whom’ should be used for the object of a verb or preposition. However, in real life we often break the rules and regular usage can make a new construction become acceptable.
Using ‘whom’ with prepositions
Although sometimes the word ‘whom’ can sound unnatural or even pompous, there is one construction where using ‘whom’ is normal. This is when it directly follows a preposition. In this case there is no question of ‘who’ or ‘whom’ – it should always be ‘whom’.
‘This is the person to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude’.
However, there are other constructions with prepositions that sound less natural.
Take the example sentences, which are both correct:
‘Who are you buying that present for‘?
‘For whom are you buying that present’?
Although the second sentence is perfectly correct (as is the first, only more colloquially), it sounds stiff and uncomfortably formal. The second is much more common and sounds more natural to the modern ear
Who or Whom? Formal and informal choices
Some grammarians believe you should never end a sentence with a preposition. In which case, the sentence ‘who are you buying that present for?’ is incorrect. Instead we should always say ‘for whom are you buying that present?’ So the preposition comes first.
However, other people reject this ‘rule’ as obsolete. In real life, native speakers often end a sentence with a preposition. Although it is perfectly correct to use ‘whom’ to change the order of the sentence, it is optional and not a requirement.
In fact, it can sound rather unnatural to use the second example in order to remove the end preposition
The use of a preposition at the end of a sentence is often a stylistic choice. What do you think?
A preposition can feel quite natural at the end of a sentence for native speakers. The sentence ‘Who are you buying the present for’? will sound more natural to native speakers than ‘for whom are you buying the present’?
One good example of the use of ‘whom’ after a preposition is the common text found at the top of a formal letter when the recipient is unknown: ‘To whom it may concern’.
The question of whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ with prepositions is at the simpler end of the ‘who’ or ‘whom’ debate!
‘Who’ as a relative pronoun
Sometimes, the question ‘who’ or ‘whom’ is irrelevant and the problem can be discarded altogether. As a relative pronoun, the word ‘who’ is optional.
For example, both these sentences are correct:
‘There are some people here I really like’.
‘There are some people here who I really like’.
Also think about the two sentences below using the preposition ‘to’, which are also both correct:
‘There are some people I really enjoy talking to’
‘There are some people who I really enjoy talking to’
Of course, you could also use the ‘whom’ construction here to change the sentence again, which grammar fans might prefer, as this takes away the end preposition:
‘There are some people to whom I really enjoy talking’
‘Whom’ as interrogative direct object
Do you see who/whom I see?
Some students might be wondering if we use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ with a direct question.
Normally, we use ‘who’ as the interrogative direct object. For example, ‘Who is there?’ ‘Who watched the TV show last night?’
But in certain circumstances, it is possible to use the world ‘whom’ as an interrogative direct object. Grammatically, it should be used when ‘who’ is the object of the verb or preposition.
For example, ‘Whom do you like the best?’, ‘Whom did you meet at the cinema?’ or ‘Whom did you ask to dinner‘? All of these sentence are correct because ‘whom’ is the object of the verbs ‘like’, ‘meet’ and ‘ask’ respectively.
The phrase ‘Do you see who I see’? sounds normal. If we replace this with ‘Do you see whom I see’? it sounds slightly odd again, even though it is correct grammatically.
In response to the ‘who’ or ‘whom’ question, in this interrogative clause (a simple question) the best word to use must be ‘who’ because this is the word nearly all native speakers would use in daily life. Sometimes, using the natural word is the best choice, as using the ‘correct’ word would sound archaic.
‘Whom’and the accusative case
The question of using ‘who’ or ‘whom’ also relates to cases in grammar. The sentence ‘Do you see who I see?’ places the word ‘who’ in the accusative case. The accusative can also be called the ‘objective’.
Although the English language does not have a strict case system like, say, German, it is useful to consider the cases when thinking about ‘who’ and ‘whom’.
A noun or pronoun is in the accusative case when it serves as the object of a preposition or receives the action of a transitive verb (a transitive verb is a verb that requires one or more objects).
In contrast, a noun or pronoun is in the dative case when it is used as an indirect object – the noun/pronoun to which something is given. For example: Mary gave the teacher a book. Here, the book is the direct object and the teacher is the indirect object of the sentence, so the teacher is in the dative case.
When considering the ‘who or whom’ question relating to the accusative case, we can see the following examples:
‘Is there someone who you could call?’
‘Is there someone whom you could call?’
Most native English speakers would use the first sentence, just like with the previous example: ‘Do you see who I see?’
‘The woman who I employ‘
‘The women whom I employ’
Native speakers can say ‘The woman whom I employ’ or ‘The woman who I employ’, as both are correct. The first is grammatically correct but the second is colloquially correct and would be more natural to a native speaker.
However, take the following example:
‘The man with who I live’
‘The man with whom I live’
The sentence: ‘The man with whom I live’ sounds correct, but the sentence: ‘The man with who I live’ does not. This is because the preposition ‘with’ has been used directly before the ‘who’/’whom’.
The use of this preposition directly before the ‘who’ or ‘whom’ means that ‘whom’ is required, even to the colloquial ear.
Share your thoughts on ‘who’ and ‘whom’
When do you find it most difficult to know when to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’?
Do you try to avoid ‘whom’ altogether?
Teachers, how do you teach your students the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’?
Can you think of other ways to remember when to use ‘whom’?
Do you know any other grammar rules that give a similar problem?