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Who or whom? The great debate…

When I blogged last year about relative pronouns, I promised to return to the distinction between who and whom another time. Ta-da! That time has arrived! Reading the title above, some of you may ask: what debate? Many folk live their lives quite happily without hardly ever letting a ‘whom’ pass their lips, while others regard correct usage of these two pronouns as de rigueur, groaning every time their eyes light on a mistake. Although whom is certainly on the wane in informal situations, there are enough grammar websites devoting screenfuls of advice about how to use who and whom correctly to prove that many English-speakers still care about such things.

Who’s on their grammatical toes?

Try this test to see what you know. Some of the following examples are, strictly speaking, incorrect. Can you pick them out?

1. She came with two friends, one of whom was carrying her dinner in a box.
2. The girl, whom cannot be named for legal reasons, has given a statement to the police.
3. He reminded me of a loving grandpa to who a grandchild could run for comfort.
4. Out of all your friends, who do you admire the most?
5. Who is that girl with Josh?
6. I had no difficulty finding the person who I wanted to meet.

Think you got them all? Some are trickier than others, and some depend on the situation you’re in. Sentences 2, 3, 4, and 6 are considered grammatically non-standard, especially in formal contexts. I’ll give you the correct versions and explanations in the next sections.

So when do you need to be aware of the difference? In everyday conversation, when we’re speaking to friends, family, or colleagues, whom rarely gets a look-in: people use who all the time and may view whom as rather stuffy or pretentious. If, on the other hand, you’re writing for publication, work, school, or college, or if you’re giving a formal speech or presentation, it’s more important to know how to use who and whom correctly.

Who and whom: their roles and the rules

Who and whom perform two roles in English: they act as relative pronouns and interrogative pronouns. The basic grammatical rules which govern who and whom are simple to follow: you use who as the subject of a verb and you use whom as the object of a verb or a preposition.

Who and whom as relative pronouns

These pronouns refer to a person or people mentioned earlier and they’re followed by a relative clause that gives more information about that person or those people. Relative clauses fall into two main categories, restrictive and non-restrictive (there’s a quick-reference guide here). Here’s an example of a restrictive relative clause, marked in bold:

I had no difficulty finding the person whom I wanted to meet.

The clause gives essential information about the person, and the sentence wouldn’t make sense without it. In formal situations, whom is the correct pronoun to use because it appears in the object position of the verb ‘meet’: I wanted to meet him or her. However, in spoken English, people often use who, or they miss out the relative pronoun completely:

I had no difficulty finding the person who I wanted to meet.
I had no difficulty finding the person I wanted to meet.

As for non-restrictive relative clauses, sometimes you should use who, and in other cases whom, depending on the rest of the clause. Here are two examples, with the relative clauses marked in bold:

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has given a statement to the police.
Peter Windsor, whom you met last week, is your main point of contact.

In the first sentence, ‘the girl’ is the subject of the sentence and she’s also the subject of the verb ‘named’ in the relative clause, so the correct pronoun is who. In the second sentence, ‘Peter Windsor’ is the subject of the overall sentence, but he’s the object of the verb ‘met’ in the relative clause, so whom is strictly more correct here, though many people would use who in conversation as it sounds more natural. Missing out the relative pronouns altogether in non-restrictive clauses is not considered good English, though:

X   The girl, cannot be named for legal reasons, has given a statement to the police.
X   Peter Windsor, you met last week, is your main point of contact.

As mentioned, whom is also used in more formal English as the object of a preposition (‘of’ and ‘to’ respectively in the following two examples):

She came with two friends, one of whom was carrying her dinner in a box.
He reminded me of a loving grandpa to whom a grandchild could run for comfort.

In less formal and spoken English, people would probably say ‘…one of who…’ in the first sentence, and the second example might go something like) this:

He reminded me of a loving grandpa who a grandchild could run for comfort to.

(This isn’t the place to go into the issue of prepositions at the end of sentences, but here’s a blog post on the topic if you’re interested).

Who and whom as interrogative pronouns

You can use who or whom to ask questions meaning ‘what/which person or people?’ Again, the central distinction is the same: you use who as the subject of a verb, but you use whom as the object of a verb or preposition.

Out of all your friends, whom do you admire the most?
Who is that girl with Josh?

In the first example, whom is correct in formal situations because it’s the object of the verb ‘admire’ (you admire him or her the most). Who is the right word in the second example: it’s the subject of the verb ‘is’.

How to get it right

So now you know the basic rules, but it can be tricky when you want to apply them: identifying subjects and objects isn’t always straightforward. Here are some tips, and remember that the more you practise anything, the better you become.

Tip one: the easiest way to identify the subjects and objects of sentences and clauses is to find the verbs and then decide who or what is doing the action (the subject). Then check if there’s an object: not all verbs have objects, but if they do, it’s the person or thing that’s affected by the action of the verb. Remember that prepositions (linking words such as by, with, from, of, about, etc.) can also have objects.

Tip two: if you’re dealing with a complex sentence with two or more clauses, break it down into smaller sentences. Here’s how to do it:

Peter Windsor, whom you met last week, is your main point of contact. [original example]

Peter Windsor is your main point of contact.
You met him last week.

As you can see, you needed to replace ‘whom’ with ‘him’ when you made the relative clause into a separate sentence, and it seemed easy and natural to use the object pronoun ‘him’ as the object of the verb ‘met’ rather than the subject pronoun ‘he’. If you can reword a clause with one of the object pronouns me, him, her, us, or them, the correct relative pronoun is whom, as it’s the relative pronoun which takes the object position.

Conversely, if you can recast the new sentence with one of the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, or they, then who is the correct relative pronoun, as it’s used in the subject position:

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has given a statement to the police. [original example]

The girl has given a statement to the police.
She cannot be named for legal reasons.

Tip three: when who and whom are used in questions, which type of pronoun, subject or object, would you answer the question with? This gives you a clue as to which relative pronoun to use:

Subject: Who is that girl with Josh? She’s his sister.
Object: Whom do you admire most? I admire him [or her, or them].

Before you go…

Here’s hoping this has helped you get to grips with the distinction between who and whom. I’d also like to offer some reassurance: don’t worry about this if you’re speaking in most everyday situations. People normally use who in such cases (whether strictly correct or not) and grammar guides such as Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage and textbooks for English learners all say this is perfectly natural and acceptable.

However, if you’re writing or speaking in a more formal situation, it’s best to know when whom is appropriate. According to Garner’s Modern American Usage, whom (though ‘stilted’ in certain contexts) persists more strongly in American English than in British English, especially when used in association with prepositional constructions (such as one of whom, to whom, with whom) so if you’re an American English speaker and writer, or writing for an American publication, that’s another factor to take into account.

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