“Who” and “whom” are among the most commonly confused pairs of words in the English language. For many, discerning when to use each can feel like a linguistic labyrinth. However, understanding the underlying grammar can illuminate the path, ensuring that we use these pronouns accurately and confidently.
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The Basic Differentiator: Subject vs. Object
The primary distinction between “who” and “whom” lies in their grammatical roles — one serves as a subject and the other as an object.
“Who” is a subject pronoun, like “he,” “she,” or “they.” It refers to the person performing an action.
Example: “Who is calling?” (Here, “who” refers to the person making the call.)
“Whom” is an object pronoun, akin to “him,” “her,” or “them.” It refers to the person receiving an action or to whom something belongs.
Example: “Whom did you call?” (Here, “whom” is the receiver of the call.)
“Who” as the Doer
When trying to determine whether to use “who” or “whom,” ask yourself who is doing the action in the sentence. If the pronoun represents the doer, “who” is your go-to word.
“Who wrote this book?”
In this question, we’re inquiring about the person who performed the action of writing, making “who” the appropriate choice.
“Whom” as the Receiver
On the other hand, when the pronoun is on the receiving end of the action, “whom” steps into the spotlight.
“You gave the letter to whom?”
In this scenario, we’re seeking to identify the individual who received the letter, which positions “whom” as the correct selection.
Using the He/Him Technique
One handy trick to decide between “who” and “whom” is the he/him technique. Here’s how it works:
- Rewrite your sentence or question using “he” or “him” instead of the pronoun in question. If “he” fits, then “who” is the right choice. If “him” seems appropriate, opt for “whom.”
Taking the previous examples:
“He wrote this book” aligns with “Who wrote this book?”
“You gave the letter to him” corresponds with “You gave the letter to whom?”
This technique often clarifies the choice without requiring a deep dive into grammar rules.
Prepositions and “Whom”
In English, it’s common to see “whom” following prepositions such as “to,” “with,” “for,” “about,” and “between.” Since prepositions usually require an object, “whom” naturally fits the bill.
“To whom it may concern…”
“With whom are you attending the event?”
In these sentences, the relationship between the preposition and “whom” solidifies the object status of the pronoun.
While understanding “who” vs. “whom” is valuable, especially in formal writing contexts, it’s worth noting that language is in perpetual evolution. In casual conversation and even in some written contexts, many native speakers use “who” where traditionally “whom” would be correct. As language adapts to societal norms, strict adherence to some rules becomes more flexible.
The distinction between “who” and “whom” boils down to recognizing subjects and objects within sentences. With a foundational understanding of their roles and a few handy tricks up your sleeve, like the he/him technique, navigating the path between these pronouns becomes less perplexing. While it’s crucial to be precise in formal situations, always remember that language is a living entity, and its primary purpose is effective communication.
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