Episode 44: March 9, 2007
by Mignon Fogarty
Today's topic is "who" versus "whom."
I've received many requests from listeners to cover this topic.
Here's Noreen: I just wondered if possibly in one of your episodes you could go through the use of who versus whom. I think that's a common misunderstanding with many people who write.
And an unnamed caller:
"Who" and "whom": that's always a tough one.
"Who" or "Whom"?
So here we go. The words "who" and "whom" are both pronouns. I'll have a quick and dirty trick for you later, but first I want you to actually understand the right way to use these words.
First, to know whether to use "who" or "whom," we need to talk about the difference between subjects and objects because you use "who" when you are referring to the subject of a clause and "whom" when you are referring to the object of a clause.
I know: subject and object sound pretty abstract, but it's easy. If we think about people, the subject of the sentence is the person doing something, and the object of the sentence is having something done to them. If I step on Squiggly, then I am the subject and Squiggly is the object.
Still having a hard time remembering? Here's my favorite mnemonic: If I say, "I love you," you are the object of my affection, and you is also the object of the sentence (because I am loving you, making me the subject and you the object). How's that? I love you. You are the object of my affection and my sentence. It's like a Valentine's Day card and grammar mnemonic all rolled into one.
I love you. You are the object of my affection and my sentence. It's like a Valentine's Day card and grammar mnemonic all rolled into one.
OK. So you all asked about "who" versus "whom," but what I think you really want to know is just when to use "whom," because most people don't go around throwing unneeded "whoms" into their sentences. So remember, you use "whom" when you are referring to the object of a sentence. Use "who" when you are referring to the subject of a sentence.
For example, it is "Whom did you step on?" if you are trying to figure out that I had squished Squiggly. Similarly, it would be "Whom do I love?" because you are asking about the object -- the target of my love. I know, it's shocking, but the Rolling Stones were being grammatically incorrect when they belted out the song "Who Do You Love?" which I think was originally written by Bo Diddley.
Take the "Who" Versus "Whom" Quiz ⇒
So when is it OK to use "who"? If you were asking about the subject of these sentences, then you would use "who." For example, "Who loves you?" and "Who stepped on Squiggly?" In both these cases the one you are asking about is the subject -- the one taking action, not the one being acted upon.
A Quick and Dirty Tip
Still too hard to remember? OK, here's the quick and dirty tip. Like "whom," the pronoun "him" ends with "m." When you're trying to decide whether to use "who" or "whom," ask yourself if the answer to the question would be "he" or "him."
That's the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with "him," then use "whom," and it's easy to remember because they both end with "m." For example, if you're trying to ask, "Who (or whom) do you love?" The answer would be "I love him." "Him" ends with an "m," so you know to use "whom."
But if you are trying to ask, "Who (or whom) stepped on Squiggly?" the answer would be "He stepped on Squiggly." There's no "m," so you know to use "who."
So that's the quick and dirty trick: if you can't remember that you use "whom" when you are referring to the object of the sentence, just remember that "him" equals "whom."
Where words come from
List of the 100 best novels (from The Modern Library)
Download the Chapter on "Dirty Words" From Grammar Girl's Book
"Who" versus "whom" is just one of the many confusing word choices that Mignon Fogarty covers in the "Dirty Words" chapter of her book, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. You can download the chapter by clicking here.
Order a copy of the paperback edition from any of these online retailers or pick one up at your favorite bookstore such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s.
The book is also available in an e-book edition. You can download a copy wherever e-books are sold.
Think you understand the difference between "who" and "whom"? Take the quiz. ⇒