Some people think the main difference between who and whom is the way they sound, with whom being the more formal way to say who. In reality, the distinction between them is grammatical. Even though who and whom are both pronouns, they do completely different jobs in a sentence—who acts as the subject while whom acts as the object. Just remember to use who to refer to the person who is propelling the action in a sentence; use whom when the person is having the action done to them. You also use whom, never who, as the object of a preposition.
|Subject pronoun||Direct or indirect object pronoun|
|Never use as the object of a preposition||Must use with prepositions|
Let's look at some examples:
Students who study hard usually earn excellent grades.
The pronoun, who, is referring back to the subject, students. (Who earns excellent grades? The students do.) Because the pronoun is referring to a subject, it would be incorrect to use the object pronoun whom.
Earning excellent grades also depends on whom you study with.
This sentence has two clauses, but for the purposes of this lesson we'll focus only on the second one, whom you study with. In this clause, whom is the object of the preposition with, so it would be incorrect to use the subject pronoun who.
- You can replace who with other subject pronouns (he, she, I, we, they, etc.) and whom with other object pronouns (him, her, me, us, them, etc.).
The comedian who is on TV right now is the funniest guy I've ever seen.
⇒ He is on TV.
Who is the subject of the verb is, so you can replace who with he.
My cousins are the family members whom I see most often.
⇒ I see them.
Whom is the direct object of the verb see, so you can replace whom with them. You'll notice that the placement of whom is different from that of other object pronouns—whom generally comes before the subject and verb while other object pronouns like them come after the subject and verb. For that reason, it might not be obvious at first glance that you can replace whom with another object pronoun (you would never say them I see).
A Couple of Sticky Situations
There are certain sentence types that make it difficult to decide whether to use who or whom.
Object of One Clause, Subject of Another
This situation involves two verbs with a pronoun between them:
It was pitch dark, and I couldn't see who was coming down the hall.
Notice how who seems to "stick" to both verbs—it looks like the object of the first verb and the subject of the second. So which pronoun do you choose, who or whom? There's a simple answer—subjects speak louder than objects because they propel the action in a sentence, so always "stick" with the subject pronoun who.
Preposition Separated from its Object
Take a look at this example of traditional formal English:
For whom are those flowers?
Chances are you've never heard anyone ask a question that way. When we talk, the preposition "unsticks" from the pronoun and moves all the way down to the end of the sentence:
Whom are those flowers for?
Still sound strange? That's because most people would say
Whoare those flowers for? but it's really better to use whom because it's the object of the preposition for.
It's easy to tell when you're dealing with an object-preposition separation because you can replace whom with him, her, me, us, them, etc.
Question: Whom are those flowers for?
Whom is the object of the preposition for.
Answer: The flowers are for her.
Now, in the answer, her has become the object of the preposition for.
- Traditionally, it is incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition, but when we talk it happens naturally. Many teachers still prefer their students not to end sentences with prepositions, but this rule has become more relaxed in recent years.
- You won't always be able to rely on the way sentences sound when completing this exercise! There are several common sentences and questions that may deceive you because most people say them incorrectly.
- For more information on who and whom, see Lesson 5: Interrogative Pronouns and Lesson 7: Relative Pronouns in "Module 2, Pronouns."