3 Tips to Solve the Who vs. Whom Dilemma

www.RuthlessEditor.comFewer and fewer people seem to recognize when to use who and when to use whom. Have who and whom become interchangeable? 

It depends on whom you ask.

There still are people who value grammatical correctness, and there still are those who will judge you for not knowing the difference between who and whom.

These three tips will help those who care but get confused:

Who is a subject and is paired with a verb:

Who cares about grammar?
The committee should have a chair who is task-oriented and will keep everyone in line.
We will watch closely who gets the nod.

Whom is an object and often is paired with a preposition (in whom, at whom, for whom, with whom, to whom, about whom):

She is the only teacher in whom students have expressed confidence.
My representative is out of touch with many ordinary voters about whom she claims to care.
I don’t know for whom he prefers to work.

The old saw “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition” is not always followed in conversational English. Many would consider it stilted and stuffy to phrase sentences as they are above. They would prefer:

She is the only teacher whom students have expressed confidence in.
My representative is out of touch with many ordinary voters whom she claims to care about.
I don’t know whom he prefers to work for.

Either of the first two sentences above of course would be fine without whom, which solves the who or whom dilemma.

As for placing the preposition at the end, judge your listening or reading audience and the tone you wish to strike: casual or formal.

These sentences correctly use whom as an object, but they lack a preposition:

We don’t know whom we should choose.
I suggested that she call the proprietor, whom she knows well.
Did you say he argued with a woman whom he had criticized in public?

If you can substitute he, she or they, use who.
If you can substitute him, her or them, use whom.

Who should carry the flags? He / she / they should carry the flags.
How do you decide who gets to go to camp? How do you decide if he / she / they get(s) to go to camp?
Can you guess who wrote the report? Can you guess whether he / she / they wrote the report?

Whom should I ask? Should I ask her / him / them?
From whom did you buy your car? Did you buy your car from her / him / them?
I wondered at whom she directed her criticism. I wondered if she directed her criticism at her / him / them.

It’s one thing to hear who when it should be whom in spontaneous, casual conversation.

It’s another thing to make the error in an email or other business communication, or in an academic paper or news report — something that should have been subject to review and editing.

Do you have tips about how to remember to use who or whom? Please share! We all can use quick, clever mnemonic devices.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

4 thoughts on “3 Tips to Solve the Who vs. Whom Dilemma

  1. AvatarBeth B

    I always struggled with the distinction between who and whom until I studied German. Somehow it is obvious whether wer or wen is appropriate, and I just transferred that understanding to English.

  2. AvatarJacqui Sakowski

    I love the article, “3 Tips to Solve the Who vs. Whom Dilemma”.

    When I answer the phone I routinely ask, “To whom am I speaking?” I cannot tell you the number of times I have received the response, “Wow! You must have been an English Major!” It would seem that there is a large segment of the population that either does not understand the rule, or that prefers a more casual communication style. In a business setting I believe that, “To whom am I speaking?” is a much more elegant and professional question than “Who’s calling, please?”

    As ever, thnaks for the great advice!

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