Article: Who vs. Whom

by David Bowman

Do you remember Johnnie Cochran, the powerful lawyer who lead OJ Simpson’s defense team? He was good, really good. And he used good grammar.

One of his more powerful statements, actually a rhetorical question to the jury, was, “Who is kidding whom?” I admit to cheering when I heard him say that.

“Whom” is starting to drop out of the English language, I suspect, because many people don’t know what it means or how to use it. Those who do are sometimes considered snooty by those who don’t, like wearing a suit and tie to a ball game might be considered snooty by those who are dressed in shorts. Using “whom” isn’t snooty; it’s correct. Let’s look at “who” and “whom,” what they mean, and how they are used.

1. Using “Who”

“Who” is a subject pronoun. This means that “who” does something. “Who” has an action and is followed by a verb.”. One way to check whether or not “who” is the right word is to replace it (temporarily) with the word “He” or “She,” which are also subject pronouns.

“There is the man who stole my cookie!” (“Who” is the subject of “stole”; “he stole.”)
“Who wants to buy me another cookie?” (“Who” is the subject of “wants”; “he wants.”)

2. Using “Whom”

“Whom” is an object pronoun. This means that “Whom” is the recipient of an action or completes a prepositional phrase. One way to check whether or not “whom” is the right word is to replace it (temporarily) with the word “him” or “her,” which are also object pronouns.

“Officer, my cookie was stolen, but I don’t know by whom.” (“Whom” is the object of the preposition “by”; “by him.”)
“I’m looking for the cookie thief whom you didn’t see.” (“Whom is the object of “you didn’t see”; “you didn’t see him.”)

3. Where this gets tricky

The “who/whom” can start a clause that serves as an object. For example, consider this sentence: “I gave my cookie to the man who/whom wore a red tie.” “The man who/whom wore a red tie” is an object of “to.” So which do you choose? Actually the answer is pretty simple. Find the verbs in the sentence first, and then locate their subjects. The subject of the verb “wore” is “who/whom.” Because we need a subject here, we use the subject pronoun “Who.” Thus, we have “I gave my cookie to the man who wore a red tie.”

Another way to decide is to identify the clauses in a sentence. This sentence has the clause “I gave my cookie to the man” and “Who wore a red tie.” The first clause has the subject-verb combination of “I gave,” and the second has the subject-verb combination “who wore.” Again, we see that “Who” is the subject of the clause, so we need the subject pronoun. This also gets tricky when the Subject-verb-object order is disrupted, such as when revising sentences so they don’t end in prepositions. For example, consider this sentence: “To whom shall I give my cookie?” “Whom” seems to be in the subject position as the subject of “shall.” However, “whom” is the object of the preposition “to.” Another way to write this sentence (poorly) is “I shall give my cookie to whom?” Now, the selection of “who” and “whom” seems pretty obvious.

On the other hand, in the sentence “Who shall buy my cookie?” “who” is serving as the subject of “shall buy,” which is why we use “who” and not “whom.” In this sentence, as in the previous examples, finding the verbs will help you decide which to use.

4. Quick summary

Who: Subject, can be replaced by other subject pronouns, such as “he” and “her”
Whom: Object, can be replaced by other object pronouns, such as “him” and “her”

5. One final note

We sometimes get questions about “whomever” and “whoever.” These two words follow the same rules as “who” and “whom.” You can correctly write, “Whoever has the cookie can give it to whomever he chooses.” “Whoever” is the subject of “has,” and “whomever” is the object of “chooses” (as in, “he chooses whomever”).

About the Author: David Bowman is the owner and chief editor of Precise Edit, a comprehensive editing, proofreading, and document analysis service for authors, students, and businesses. Precise Edit also offers a variety of other services, such as translation, transcription, and website development. Click Here for more information about Precise Edit’s services.

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