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A few months ago, I wrote about the correct use of “me,” “myself,” and “I,” which is tricky for a lot of people. Knowing when to use “who” and “whom” is tricky too,  but you’re in luck, since if you’ve mastered the distinction between objective and subjective case (which helps with those tricky first-person pronouns), the most common cases of “who” and “whom” will be a cinch. (Maybe.)

Recall that we use the subjective case when the pronoun in question is the person performing an action. We use the objective when the person is having an action performed on him or on his behalf. Simply put, “who” is the subject of a sentence, and “whom” is an object. If the person you’re speaking about is performing an action, use “who.” So:

The boy who ate his own shoe had a horrible case of indigestion.

and:

The poor boy, to whom I gave an antacid, thanked me profusely.

In the first example, it is “who” who ate, and so we use the subjective case. In the second sentence, antacid was given to the boy (not by him), and so we use the objective case. Even though the “who” in the first sentence is sort of buried behind the primary subject (“boy”), it relates to the subject doing the action “ate” and so we should use “who.”

As a quick rule of thumb, consider that if the pronoun is used next to the word “to,” it is generally going to require the objective case “whom.” But what about this?:

Whom were you feeding antacid to?

Even though the pronoun in this case occurs at the beginning of the sentence in the customary place of a good strong subject, there’s that pesky “to” at the end of the sentence, which can be rewritten in the following ways:

To whom were you feeding antacid?

You were feeding antacid to whom?

The key here is that the “whom” is the beneficiary or recipient of the action and not the performer of it, and so it is the object and requires the objective case.

Commit that subjective/objective distinction to memory and you’ll be set for most of your writing life, but there is one more dicey scenario I’ll cover (actually there are several, but let’s not get crazy). Linking verbs are verbs that connect a noun (or pronoun) to an attribute. The most common of these is the verb “to be.” In a sentence like “He is tall,” we are basically using the verb as an equals sign. Another such common verb is “seems like,” and there are other variants such as “looks like.” The iron-clad rule of linking verbs is that that if two nouns are being compared as equal or not, they must both be written in the subjective case. Think of the subjective case as a bag of apples and the objective as a bag of oranges. When using linking verbs, you can’t compare one to the other. So then take this sentence:

The pharmacist couldn’t think of who the boy reminded him of but knew the lad could not be Werner Herzog.

We have, basically, “the boy = who,” with “reminded him of” as the linking verb. A lot of people are tempted in such a case to use “whom,” mostly because it’s a complex sentence and “whom” seems appropriately formal and complex itself. Just remember that if the sentence is making an equivalence judgment, you’ll want to use “who.” (It’s the same reason, by the way, that we’re taught to use the stilted “this is he” when answering the telephone — spot that pesky linking verb and observe that the proper sentence uses the subjective case “he” rather than the objective case “him.”)

And now for a little freebie. If people have trouble with “who” and “whom,” they have even more trouble with “whoever” and “whomever.”  The same rules apply, and nine times out of ten, you’ll really need “whoever” even if you’re tempted to use “whomever” because it sounds more fancy.

Finally, I’m going to editorialize for a moment and say that I’m not really convinced that this distinction matters a whole lot. The difference between the subjective and objective pronouns causes no semantic confusion, and that tiny little “m” is a small enough change that sentences don’t sound quite as wretched when written incorrectly as when “I” and “me” or “he” and “him” are mixed up. Although I tend to use “who” and “whom” correctly except when using my most informal speech, I think that if this set of rules gives you a headache, you ought to consider just using the subjective case (“who” and “whoever”) and putting the objective aside.

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  1. I find that if I sub in the words he or him, it usually tells me whether to use who or whom, such as, “Who fed this dog?”
    If you replace who with he, “He fed this dog?”, it’s grammatically correct. “Him fed this dog?” isn’t . . .
    But I usually just use the subjective case. The objective can sound a bit pretentious at times.

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  2. I tend to avoid having to think about the use of whom because it’s tricky so I’ll have to come back and read when I’m fully awake! Thank you I’m sure if
    read a couple of times it will slot into place, but to whom?

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  3. Interesting and helpful post, but why then do you negate the entire thing with your last paragraph. As you’ve obviously noticed, the use of good grammar and punctuation are almost lost on the world of U-this and lol. Please do not encourage people to misuse those pronouns — the English language is dying already, but can’t we try to keep it alive?

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    1. I think there’s some value in knowing and preserving the rules, but I think there’s also value in knowing basically when you’re beat. I’d rather go along with natural language change in the form of atrophy like dropping “whom” than intimidate people into creating abominations like “whomever gave me the present had better fess up” through hypercorrection. A quote from Kenny Rogers seems suddenly appropriate: “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” 🙂

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  4. my teacher taught me about this last semester.
    he said, the easy way to understand this is:
    if it is subject, you use “who”, but if it is object, you use “whom”…

    i’m quite understand about this… 🙂
    thanks for the post!

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  5. My “favorite” is “between you and I.” People get so hung up on thinking you always have to use “I” in a compound subject (“He and I went shopping”) that they forget to use “me” in a compound object (“The presents were for him and her” — and yes, I’m aware that this is actually a dative usage in many languages). The trick we learned in school was to ask yourself if you would say, “between we,” which of course you wouldn’t — it’s “between us.” So it should be, “between him [or her!] and me.” Not rocket science — unless you never actually learned grammar in school…

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  6. Sadly, the few people I know who know the difference, Who & Whom, and who actually apply this difference in their conversations tend to be rather anal and the tendency of others is to laugh at them. Not a judgment on my part. I’m just saying.

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    1. I’m a little sketchy on cases like accusative and dative that we don’t really do much with formally in English (we conjugate verbs but don’t do a whole lot in the way of declining nouns), but my understanding is that the accusative case applies to direct objects, and whom is as often as not an indirect object (so the dative). If WIkipedia is to be believed, the -m forms come to us from the German dative case. I’m on shaky ground once we go very far outside objective and subjective, though, so this isn’t an argument I’d labor too hard over.

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