Tip Sheet: Using Who and Whom
A common problem with pronouns is deciding whether to use who or whom. In everyday
speech and informal writing, "whom" has become a rarely used word. Even when traditional
grammar requires "whom," many writers still use "who" instead. Nevertheless, in formal written English (including most college writing), the choice of "who" or "whom" should be grammatically correct
. "Who" and "whoever" should be used as a subject; "whom" and "whomever" should be
used as objects of prepositions.
Using relative pronouns who and whom in the proper case.
When who and whom (or whoever and whomever) appear in subordinate clauses (groups
of words which contain a subject and a verb), their case is determined by their function
within the clause. To choose the correct pronoun, you must isolate the subordinate
clause and then look at its internal structure. In the following examples, the relative
pronouns function as subjects in the subordinate clauses:
1. The prize goes to the runner who
collects the most points.
- The subordinate clause is who
collects the most points. The verb of the clause is collects
, and its subject is who
2. He tells that story to whoever
- In this case, the object of the preposition is the entire noun clause whoever will listen .
The verb of the clause is will listen, and its subject is whoever.
When it functions as an object in a subordinate clause, whom
appears out of order, before both the subject and the verb. To choose the correct
pronoun, you must mentally restructure the clause.
1. I saw Gene, a basketball player whom
I had met after the game.
is the direct object of had met
. To find the direct object, read the subject and verb and then ask what or whom
2. The tutor whom
I was assigned to was very supportive.
is the object of the preposition to
. That preposition can be moved in front of its object to make smoother reading:
The tutor to whom I was assigned was very supportive.
Beginning A Question with "Who" or "Whom"
You can decide whether to use "who" or "whom" at the beginning of a question. When
who and whom
are used to open questions, their case is determined by their function within the
question. In the following example, who functions as the subject of the question.
is responsible for this evil deed?
- "Who" is the subject of the verb "is." The writers who select whom were probably
"overcorrecting," attempting to use the form that seemed to be "more correct."
When whom appears as an object in a question, it seems out of order before the subject
and the verb. To choose the correct pronoun, you must mentally restructure the question.
did the committee select?
- Whom is the direct object of the verb did select
. To choose the correct pronoun, restructure the question: The committee selected whom?
did you enter into the contract with?
- Whom is the object of the preposition with, as is clear once the question has
been restructured: You did enter into the contract with whom?
* Note: In the case of relative pronouns, inserted expressions such as "they know,"
"I think," and "she says" should be ignored when determining the case of a relative
Beginning a dependent clause with who, whoever, whom, or whomever
Pronoun case in a dependent clause is determined by its function in the clause, no
matter how that clause functions in the sentence. If the pronoun acts as a subject
or subject complement in the clause, use "who" or "whoever." If the pronoun acts
as an object, use "whom" or "whomever."
The new president was not whom she expected.
Note "Whom" is the object of the verb "had expected" in the clause "whom she had
expected." Though the clause as a whole is the complement of the verb "was,"
pronoun should be in the objective case.
Richard feels like a knight who is headed for great adventure.
Note: "Who" is the subject of the clause "who is headed for great adventure."
Whomever the party suspected of disloyalty was executed.
Note: "Whomever" is the object of "suspected" in the clause "whomever the party
suspected of disloyalty. Though the clause as a whole is the subject of the sentence,
the pronoun should be in the objective case.
TIP: If you are not sure which case to use, try separating the dependent clause from
the rest of the sentence and looking at it in isolation. Rewrite the clause as
a new sentence with a personal pronoun instead of "who(ever)" or "whom(ever)." If
the pronoun is in the subjective case, use "who" or "whoever"; if it is in the objective
case, use "whom" or "whomever."
Anyone can hypnotize a person (who/whom) wants to be hypnotized.
(Isolate the clause "who/whom wants to be hypnotized." Substituting a personal pronoun
give you "he wants to be hypnotized." "He" is subjective case; thus, "Anyone can
hypnotize a person who wants to be hypnotized."
Edit the following sentences to correct errors in the use of who and whom
(or whoever, whomever
. Some sentences are already correct.
1. Paula yelled that she would date whoever she wanted to date.
2. If asked whom I think was the greatest American writer of the twentieth century.
3. In his first production of Hamlet
, who did Lawrence Olivier replace?
4. Who was Martin Luther King's mentor?
5. The elderly woman whom I was asked to take care of was a clever, delightful companion.