There are a few words that suddenly become very popular (whether they are used correctly or not) when our pride is on the line. In any high-stakes situation, the term “whom” starts to come out in spades, often (incorrectly) replacing “who.”
My beef with it isn’t so much that it’s used improperly, but that people use it incorrectly when they are trying to demonstrate how smart they are.
It’s a lesson that you probably learned once in 4th grade English, but don’t really remember. (No judgment here—I can’t remember the equation for the area of a trapezoid. We all have our strengths.) So if you want to sound smart (and actually be smart) by using the word “whom,” here’s a crash course on the grammar rules for who vs. whom.
It’s better than a noun; it’s a PROnoun
“Who” and “whom” are both pronouns. They take the place of gendered pronouns like her, him, he and she. Changing between “who” and “whom” is exactly the same as using “he” and “him.” It all depends on whether the pronoun is acting as the subject, or the object.
Quick refresher: The subject is the person doing the thing, the verb is the doing, and the object is the thing. Together, they all make a cozy little grammar family.
In “Sally loves her dog,” Sally is the subject, love is the verb and her dog is the object.
If we were to change that sentence to have pronouns, it would read, “She loves her dog.” Sally is still the subject. But if we made Sally the object, the sentence would be “the dog is loved by Sally.” The dog is now the subject, and Sally is now the object.
When using pronouns, the sentence becomes, “The dog is loved by her.” The pronoun we used to represent Sally changed between the two pronoun sentences because Sally’s function in the sentence changed. It’s the same with “who” and “whom.”
She isn’t an object, and neither is who
Technically speaking, the grammar rule is to use “who” if the pronoun is the subject of the clause and “whom” if the pronoun is the object of the clause.
If you relate it to the gendered pronouns we used earlier, “who” means “he” or “she,” while “whom” represents “him” or “her.” If that seems like more memory than you’re willing to dedicate to remembering who or whom, just remember that “whom” and “him” both end with the letter M, so they belong together.
Here’s a little ditty to get you by in tight spots: “If it’s him, go with whom. If it’s who, it must be he.”
Solve your own problems and answer your own questions
But you don’t have to dissect each sentence to find the subject and object to know whether to use who or whom. Instead, work backwards by trying to answer the question you’re asking in pronouns.
“[Who/m] will be there?” You’d say “she will be there.” She = who, so the sentence should be “Who will be there?”
“To [who/m] should I refer?” “Refer to him.” Him = whom, therefore, say “To whom should I refer?”
Although the reason why is a little thorny, figuring out which one is correct isn’t nearly as complicated as you’d think it is. In short: Use “whom” if the answer would be “him” or “her.” It may take a bit of getting used to, but eventually it will come out as naturally as knowing whether to say “she is tall” or “her is tall.”
So answer your phone with “May I ask who is calling?” and address your letters “To whom it may concern,” with confidence in your grammar. After all, you never know who will be paying attention.
Subscribe to SpeakingDIRECT to have new articles delivered to your inbox as they post. We promise to keep it fresh and interesting.