Word Choice: Who vs. Whom

The question of whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ is a tricky one and can trip up even the most pedantic of grammar perfectionists. Is ‘whom’ simply old-fashioned or is failing to use it in certain situations incorrect? Read on to learn when to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’.

Subjects and Objects

In order to fully understand when to use ‘who’ and ‘whom’, you need to know the difference between the subject and object of a sentence. Take the following sentence, for example:

The cat chased the mouse.

Here, the cat is the subject as she is the one doing the verb (chasing). The mouse is the object as he is the one having the verb done to him (being chased).

It is usually easy to discern the subject and object in a sentence, particularly if the sentence is in the active voice, like above, since the subject usually precedes the verb and the object.

In passive voice sentences, however, the object usually comes first:

The mouse was being chased by the cat.

The important thing to remember, therefore, is that whatever performs the action in a sentence is its subject, while the thing being acted upon is the object.

Who (Subject)

Now we can get to ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Traditionally, the word ‘who’ should only be used when referring to the subject of a sentence, as in this example:

The player who scored the goal celebrated excitedly.

Here, ‘who’ is correct since it refers to the subject of the sentence (‘the player’).

We also use ‘who’ when asking a question about the subject of a sentence:

Who left their sunglasses behind?

In this case, ‘who’ is the correct word since the question is about the person who performed the action described (i.e. leaving a pair of sunglasses behind).

Whom (Object)

‘Whom’, meanwhile, should be used when referring to the object of the sentence. In the following example, ‘whom’ is the object of the verb ‘vote’:

Whom should I vote for in the election?

The same is true even when the sentence isn’t a question. Another helpful rule to remember is that ‘whom’ is used when it follows a preposition (e.g. ‘to’, ‘with’ or ‘for’), as in the sentence:

The man for whom I voted turned out to be a crook!

The Decline of ‘Whom’

As the sentences above might show, sometimes using ‘whom’ sounds overly formal to modern ears. Broadly speaking, it is now accepted that ‘who’ can replace ‘whom’ in most circumstances.

In academic writing, however, you should aim for a formal tone and using ‘whom’ is often appropriate. Incorrect use of ‘whom’ can make you look very silly, though, so check carefully that it is the right word!

If you’re not confident about using ‘who’ and ‘whom’ and would like to have your work checked by a professional, get in touch with Proofread My Document today!

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19/10/16

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