In the English language, there are a lot of tricky words and trickier rules that go with them. Like “your” and “you’re.” Or perhaps “there,” “their,” and “they’re.” There’s even the “then” and “than” issue.
Yet the one that tends to trip up the most people, including professional speakers and writers, is when to use “whom” or “who.” Let’s get that cleared up.
It Isn’t as Complicated as Many May Think
When you’re using whom or who in a sentence, it depends on whether you’re referring to the object of a preposition or a verb or the subject of the sentence. You use “who” when you are referring to the subject in that specific sentence. You use “whom” when you’re referring to the object of a preposition or a verb.
One of the easiest ways to determine which word you should use is to look at what pronouns you would use in the sentence.
- If you would say “him” or “her” in your sentence, then you could replace it with “whom.”
- If you would say “he” or “she” in your sentence, then you could replace it with “who.”
Here are a few of examples of this idea when looking at how to use “who” properly in a sentence.
- Who made dinner tonight?
- Who has their homework already finished tonight?
- Who would like to go to the store with me today?
Then here are a few examples of this idea when looking at how to use “whom” properly in a sentence.
- To whom it may concern.
- Whom do you believe right now?
- I do not know with whom I will go out on a date with tonight.
To utilize the him/her and he/she rule of substitution for whom/who, you may find that it becomes necessary to rearrange your sentence structure for it to make sense. This is especially true for “whom.” Yet you’ll find that this substitution rule works very well in virtually all scenarios.
What About Confusing Sentences Where Both Seem Right?
Sometimes the whom/who substitution rule can be confusing because there are some sentences that seem like both words would work properly. This is more because of how we misuse these words in conversations than it is confusion in grammar. Here’s an example.
- Whom/Who ate my lasagna leftovers in the refrigerator?
Let’s put the substitution rule into play here. Which do you think sounds better?
- He ate my lasagna leftovers in the refrigerator.
- Him ate my lasagna leftovers in the refrigerator.
Notice first that we had to shift the sentence so that it was no longer a question. Then we substituted whom/who for gender-specific pronouns. These are the only two options that are available. Which one sounds better?
The first sentence sounds better. This means the proper word to use with the whom or who rule in mind is “who.”
Here’s another example.
- Whom/Who should I talk to about turning in my homework today?
Here again we need to substitute with gender-specific pronouns to determine what the proper structure of the sentence should be.
- I should talk to he about turning in my homework today.
- I should talk to him about turning in my homework today.
Notice we once again needed to shift the structure of the sentence away from being a question. Which one of the examples sounds the best?
The second example. This means “whom” should be used.
Is Knowing the Difference Between Whom or Who Necessary?
In general conversation and even for informal writing, knowing the difference between whom and who isn’t always necessary. Using “whom” sounds awkward to many people and it may even make them think of you as being arrogant or condescending. This is especially true if the environment is considered to be casual in nature.
There are some well-established phrases that still do require “whom.” After all, it would sound more awkward to say “To who it may concern.”
In formal writing, this rule should be followed at all times. This means any essays, research papers, whitepapers, and any other written work that is similar in nature to these should always be distinctive with “whom” and “who” at all times. Otherwise the content may seem too informal and may not be taken seriously.
Some people never use “whom” at all. Others try to follow this rule as often as possible. In modern English, this rule is at the discretion of the writer. It’s use, or lack of us, becomes part of the writer’s voice.
So now you know it. It’s time to use it – or not. It’s up to you.