Who or Whom?

How to get it right—and when and how to fudge it

Who and whom are tricky. Every language guide has an entry on how to deal with these pronouns. One of my favorites—Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage—devotes a full page to published faux pas. Among the offenders are the likes of William F. Buckley and a passel of journalists who not only write for a living but probably also enjoy the ministrations of professional copy editors.

Part of the problem is the fact that, in casual speech and writing, who is widely and acceptably used in place of whom. That can leave whom sounding just plain wrong even when it’s right. This has been true for a long time. Observers of the language have been predicting and even promoting the demise of whom since at least 1870 (according to Webster’s dictionary). Yet we keep right on using who and whom in much the same way they were used in Shakespeare’s day.

Which is to say, who is a subject and whom is an object—until it sounds funny.

Below, you’ll find:

  • The basic rule
  • The most common complications
  • When and how to fudge it

The basic rule

Who and whoever are subjects—they take a verb.

Who is going to take a peony?
Whoever wants a peony should take one.

Whom and whomever are objects—of a verb or a preposition.

You met whom at the secret garden?
You met whomever you wanted, naturally.
Ask not for whom the tulip grows.
Give a flower to whomever you like.

Complications

The problem is, determining whether these pronouns function as subject or object isn’t always easy. Two main problems arise:

1. The pronoun is part of a clause nested inside the larger sentence, which can obscure its true function.

2. The pronoun is at the beginning of the sentence, which can trick you into assuming it’s the subject.

Complication 1: The pronoun is part of a clause nested inside the larger sentence

Wrong: Forward this e-mail to whomever you think gives a darn.
Right: Forward this e-mail to whoever you think gives a darn.

You might incorrectly choose whomever in a sentence like this if you assume that any word following a preposition is an object. However, in this example, the entire clause “whoever you think gives a darn”—not whoever alone—is the object of the preposition to. Whoever is the subject of the clause, and that function determines its case.

Identifying the existence of a clause in the first place is key, of course. Look for verbs. Remember, a clause, unlike a mere phrase, has its own subject and verb. Here, what goes with gives? Not the absent but understood subject of the larger sentence, you, whose verb is forward. “You gives”? I think not. What gives, then? Who gives.

The sentence is especially tricky because of the extraneous “you think,” which potentially distracts from the fact that the real subject and verb of the clause are “whoever gives.” Subtracting words to see what the sentence can do without can be a good way to reveal its basic structure: Forward this to whoever … gives a darn.

The following example is very similar in meaning, but the structure is different. The pronoun is no longer part of a clause; it’s just the object of the preposition with:

Wrong: Please share this lesson with whoever you like.
Right: Please share this lesson with whomever you like.

Complication 2: The pronoun is at the beginning of the sentence

The first word of a sentence is often assumed to be the subject. It may not be. Questions, for example, may invert the usual subject-verb-object syntax. Rearranging the sentence in your mind can help you sort out what’s what. What word does the verb actually go with?

Wrong: Who can you trust?
Right: Whom can you trust?
Think: You (the subject) can trust … someone, an object, i.e. whom.

Wrong: Who does she want to attend the prom with?
Right: Whom does she want to attend the prom with?
Think: She (the subject) wants to attend the prom with … someone, an object, i.e. whom.

Sometimes, of course, the first word is the subject:

Wrong: Whom should I say is calling?
Right: Who should I say is calling?
Think: I should say who is calling.
OR think: Who is calling? (see subtraction tip above)

The fudge factor: default to who

The distinction between who and whom can be important for clarity and sound sentence structure. And, for some of us, to demonstrate our grasp of English. But there are two reasons to fudge it: 1) as explained earlier, who has been so widely used in place of whom for so long, especially in spoken English, that what is technically correct can sound forced, or 2) you can’t for the life of you figure out which one is correct.

Believe me, I’m not one to accommodate semiliteracy, but whom can be a stopper, and a sentence should flow. As a copy editor and copywriter, I cheerfully use who in place of whom in certain contexts. And, alas, even I sometimes have trouble determining which pronoun is correct (sentence diagramming has never been my strong point).

When you fudge, always go with who/whoever. If it’s wrong, most readers will glide right by it. Not so if you choose whom/whomever.

The following are right—and yet, whom are we kidding?

Whom do you think you are?
Whom were you talking to?
It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know.

The following are “wrong”—and yet, I think you’ll agree, so right:

Who do you think you are?
Who were you talking to?
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.