Oh, the debates over when to use who vs. whom in a sentence! The fist fights! The wars! Governments have toppled over less – and still, it remains a mystery.
Of course, I’m exaggerating for the fun of it, but many people really don’t know the proper usage of these two terms. “Whom” has always sounded more formal whereas “who” sounds more common, but that’s usually where it ends. So allow me to dispel the myths and get you up to speed.
Subjects and Objects: A Quick Review
First, understand that who and whom are both your garden variety pronouns. And because they are run-of-the-mill pronouns, they can function as the subject or object.
Whether you should use who or whom completely depends on whether you need a subject or an object pronoun. (The possessive pronoun doesn’t apply to who and whom.)
Subjective pronoun: The subject of the sentence.
- She went to the mall. (She caused the action.)
Object pronoun: The object of the sentence. This can be the direct object, the indirect object, or the object of the preposition.
- She hugged him. (Him is the direct object. She is the subject.)
- The teacher gave her a black belt. (Her is the indirect object. What did the teacher give? A black belt. To whom did the teacher give the black belt? Her. Get it?)
- They went after her. (After is the preposition and her is the object of that preposition.)
There is your pronoun refresher! If you want a really in-depth look at the cases of pronouns, take a look at our article, Three Cases of Pronouns.
Enough Grammar! Throw Some Hands!
So here’s what you’ve all been waiting for. The bottom line. The rule on who vs. whom. Drumroll, please:
- “Who” is used as a subjective pronoun, and
- “Whom” is used as an objective pronoun.
Sort of anticlimactic, no?
Who/Whom decided to show up to the concert? → Who decided to show up to the concert?
In this case, we are looking for a subjective pronoun since whatever it is will be doing the action. Who is the subjective pronoun, so we use who.
- The concert was attended by who/whom? → The concert was attended by whom?
In this case, we need an objective pronoun. Therefore, we would use whom since whom is the objective pronoun.
When in Doubt, He or Him It Out
The difference between who vs. whom sounds pretty straightforward. No big mystery, right? However, it can be tricky determining which is which without remembering all that grammar. So here’s a shortcut for you: When in doubt, he or him it out.
He is always a subjective pronoun, like who. Him is always an objective pronoun, like whom. Therefore, if you are in doubt, just replace the pronoun with he or him. Whichever one is correct indicates whether you should use who vs. whom.
He = Who
Him = Whom
If you have trouble remembering the above just remember him and whom both end with an “m.”
Example 1 (subjective):
- Who/whom was in the nosebleed seats at the concert?
Now, let’s “he or him it out.”
- He was in the nosebleed seats at the concert?
Him was in the nosebleed seats at the concert?
Obviously, he is the correct answer. Therefore, you would use who as the pronoun.
- Who was in the nosebleed seats at the concert?
Example 2 (objective):
- The guitar player at the concert threw his guitar pick to who/whom?
Again, let’s “he or him it out.”
- The guitar player at the concert threw his guitar pick to he?
The guitar player at the concert threw his guitar pick to him?
Obviously, in this case, the correct answer is him. Therefore, you would use whom.
- The guitar player at the concert threw his guitar pick to whom?
The Tricky Multiple Clause in a Sentence
Now the simple gets tricky when you have multiple phrases or clauses in a sentence. In cases where you have multiple phrase sentences, you need to isolate the phrase that contains the who vs. whom conundrum and do the analysis.
- They all understood who/whom was the murderer.
In this sentence you have two phrases, “They all understood” and “who/whom was the murderer.” When you separate out the second phrase you can then “he or him it out.”
- He was the murderer?
Him was the murderer?
Here, you would use who in the sentence since he = who.
- They all understood who was the murderer.
How about another example?
- We had a lively debate about who/whom the play was written by.
First separate the clauses into “We had a lively debate about” and “who/whom the play was written by.” Now we do a little “he-him” magic. The only thing is, we need to rearrange the sentence a little bit. After all, “He/Him the play was written by” wouldn’t make any sense at all.
- The play was written by he.
The play was written by him.
Ah, now that sounds better. In this case we would use whom since him = whom.
- We had a lively debate about whom the play was written by.
If you are having any trouble with the separation of phrases and clauses, you can brush up by taking a look at Phrases and Clauses in Writing.
Whoever vs. Whomever
With whoever or whomever, the same rules apply! Even the “he or him it out” rule applies. Yeah! That makes it a bit easier.
He = Whoever
Him = Whomever
Using whoever or whomever is an indicator that you are using a dependent clause, so we’re back into the phrases and clauses arena. Your whoever or whomever should agree with the verb in that clause no matter what is in the rest of the sentence.
Example 1 (subjective):
- Santa delivers the best presents to whoever/whomever leaves out the best cookies.
Now we separate it out into:
- Santa delivers the best presents to
Whoever/whomever leaves out the best cookies.
Now let’s take the second clause and use some more “he-him” magic.
- He leaves out the best cookies.
Him leaves out the best cookies.
He wins! And he = whoever so the sentence should read like this:
- Santa delivers the best presents to whoever leaves out the best cookies.
Example 2 (objective):
- We would snub whoever/whomever is most offensive.
Separate it out:
- We would snub he.
We would snub him.
Him is correct and him = whomever, so the sentence should read like this:
- We would snub whomever is most offensive.
Who vs Whom: Final Thoughts
So there it is, who vs. whom, the title fight settled once and for all. If it’s a subjective pronoun you need and “he” will do the trick, then use who. If it’s an objective noun you need and “him” works, then use whom.
Now, one final note. It is the common opinion of many in the grammar circle that whom is on its last legs in the literary world. It has its roots in Middle and Old English and is slowly being replaced in the modern vernacular by the universal “who.” So don’t feel embarrassed if you just use who all of the time in normal conversations. However, in writing, whom is still the standard and should be used correctly in any of your professional, educational, or published works.