What is the difference between who and whom?
The difference between who and whom is that who is used as a subject pronoun and whose is used as an object pronoun. While who and whom are both used to reference a subject and object while making a statement, they are both commonly used as interrogative pronouns.
English speakers use the word who as an interrogative pronoun to ask, “Which person is doing something to somebody?” while whom is used to say, “this person is the somebody.” If we compare who/whom to gendered pronouns, we can see how who is the same as he/she, and whom is used the same as him/her.
English grammar rules for who vs. whom
Who and whom are both pronouns, which are used to replace a person or object without having to state their name repeatedly. The English language splits pronouns into three categories, which are sentence subjects, sentence objects, and possessive pronouns. Let’s take a look at each category:
Subject pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, and who.
Object pronouns: me, you, him, her, it, us, them, and whom.
Possessive pronouns: my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, it/its, ours, their/theirs, and whose.
As we can see, the pronouns who and whom belong to separate pronoun categories and are therefore used differently in a sentence. Subject or subjective pronouns are used while referring to the subject of a sentence while object pronouns refer to the object of the sentence. Who and whoever works similarly to whom and whomever because “whoever” is still a sentence subject and “whomever” remains a sentence object.
It’s important to keep in mind that who and whom are personal pronouns for people, regardless if they are used as sentence objects or sentence subjects. Pronouns such as it and its refer to inanimate objects and are confusing when misused.
Who and whom are relative pronouns
The words who and whom are also relative pronouns, which means they function to modify clauses, or make shorter sentences into one, long sentence. Pronouns with similar structural abilities include that, whose, which, where, when, and why. For example,
Teddy loves to study science. He always receives good grades.
Since Teddy is the subject of a clause and “he” is the subject pronoun of these two sentences, we can replace “he” with “who” by making the two sentences into one.
Teddy, who always receives good grades, loves to study science.
How to use who in a sentence
Since the pronoun who is a subject, it needs to pair with a verb in a sentence. In other words, the subject needs to be acting within the sentence to become the subject of the verb. For example,
Who watches public television?
Who ran for president in 2008?
I don’t know who threw the ball.
How to use whom in a sentence
Since whom is a sentence object, it’s best to use paired with a preposition such as about, at, for, in, to or with. Paring whom with a preposition allows it to become the object of a verb within the sentence. For example,
You will love mother, about whom I’ve spoken highly of over the last month.
For whom I could not tell.
He is the star in whom fans adore.
How to remember who vs. whom
One way to think about who as a subject pronoun is to remember the phrase “Who? What? When? Where?” Writers use this phrase to construct story objectives, which is just a way of deciding on the story’s subject. The word who is a sentence subject and should be used as such. For example,
Who is going to the show tonight?
The subject is in this sentence is who because the sentence is asking for the identities of people who are attending the show, and not the show or date itself.
Remembering how to use whom is more tricky, but it might help to remember how there is the letter m in whom and an m at the end of him and them. Both whom, “them,” and “him” are sentence object pronouns and are used the same within a sentence. For example,
Are you going to the show with them?
Are you going to the show with him?
In this example, “you” is the subject of the sentence, and “them” or “him” are the sentence objects. Because “them” and whom are both object pronouns, they can be used interchangeably with a little switching around:
With whom are you going to the show?
Whom can be used in place of “them” while maintaining “you” as the sentence subject. It’s important to note, though, that when switching pronouns around, the sentence tense may need to change. As shown in the two examples above, keeping the preposition of “are you” is not grammatically correct when using the word whom. In this case, keeping “…with whom?” at the end of the sentence, would read as though you are asking, “Are you going to with show with which people?”
How to check for correct usage of who vs. whom
Subject pronouns such as he, she, and who can be used interchangeably with minimal editing, and help decide if who is the correct pronoun to use over whom, or vice versa.
Example: We all saw _______ attended the show.
Since we know the pronouns he, she, and who are used interchangeably, we know we could use either one of them to complete the sentence without any grammatical errors. For example,
Correct: We all saw she attended the show.
Correct: We all saw he attended the show.
Correct: We all saw who attended the show.
Since the pronouns his, her, and whom are also used interchangeably, the same pronoun switch applies for checking when to use whom.
Be careful not to mix subject pronouns with object pronouns
While using this trick, it’s important to remember never to switch subject pronouns with object pronouns. The sentence subject who cannot be replaced by whom, or any other sentence object pronouns, and this becomes more obvious if we try to switch who with whom, them, or it. For example,
Incorrect: Teddy, whom always receives good grades, loves to study science.
Incorrect: Teddy, them always receives good grades, loves to study science.
Incorrect: Teddy, it always receives good grades, loves to study science.
English language speakers can read each of these sentences aloud and understand how they don’t sound right, but even if we replace the pronoun in the original second sentence, the pronoun tense is still incorrect:
Them always receive good grades.
It always receives good grades.
“Them” is incorrect because Teddy is one person, and “it” is incorrect because Teddy is a person, not an object. The word whom works similarly to “them” and “it,” even though “them” is used as a mass or singular pronoun, and “it” is singular. So, while we can replace “he” with who, and “them” with whom, we cannot replace sentence subject pronouns with sentence object pronouns.
Test Yourself! Who vs. whom quiz
Choose the correct word for the following multiple-choice questions on who vs. whom.
- To _________ do I owe this pleasure?
- Does anyone know _________ ate all the cookies?
- A and B
- Where did _________ go?
- All of the above
- How does _________ know how to read?
- A and D
- “For _________ the Bell Tolls” is a Metallica song and a book written by Ernest Hemingway.
- B and C
- D: Whom
- D: A and B
- D: All of the above
- A: Who
- C: Whom
- “Pronouns.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, 2019.
- “Introduction and General Usage in Defining Clauses.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, 2019.
- “Who.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
- “Who.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
- “Who vs. whom.” Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, University of Georgia, n.d.
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