Last week at Writing Center Underground, we covered pronoun case. This week, we’ll cover one of the most common misunderstandings when using pronouns: the correct use of “who” and “whom.” To understand the difference, we first need to understand the difference between a subject and an object. Let’s review:
The dog barked at the cat.
The steak tastes great.
John finished the race in record time.
The object of the sentence is the receiver of the action and usually follows the verb.
The workers painted the barn.
The boys threw rocks.
Steve dropped his new phone.
Who & Whom Questions
To determine if you would use who at the beginning of a question, answer the question using a personal pronoun. If the answer is in the subjective case, use who.
Ex: Who painted the barn?
They painted the barn; they is subjective (the subject) thus, who is correct.
Ex: Who threw the rocks?
He threw the rocks; he is subjective, thus, who is correct.
Ex: Who dropped his new phone?
He dropped his new phone; he is subjective, thus, who is correct.
Quick tip: Who acts just as I, he, she, they and we do in a sentence. These pronouns can only be used as the subject of a sentence.
To determine if you would use whom at the beginning of a question, answer the question using a personal pronoun. If the answer is in the objective case, use whom.
Ex: Whom did you marry?
I married her; her is objective, thus whom is correct.
Ex: Whom did the instructor want to work with?
The instructor wanted to work with him; him is objective, thus whom is correct.
Ex: Whom will the new law benefit?
The new law will benefit them; them is objective, thus whom is correct.
Quick tip: Whom acts just as the pronouns me, him, her, and them. These pronouns can only be used as the object of a sentence.
Who or Whom in Dependent Clauses
In more complex sentences, it doesn’t matter how the dependent clause functions in the whole sentence, only how it functions in the clause. The pronoun case in a dependent clause is determined solely by its function in the clause.
Ex: The new nanny was not whom they had hoped.
Let’s break this example down. Whom is the object of the dependent clause “whom they had hoped,” even though the clause is the complement of was (the verb); thus, the pronoun should be the objective case, or whom.
Ex: She is a strong leader whom people either love or hate.
In this example, whom is the object of the verbs love and hate. Even though the clause is the complement of the verb is, the pronoun should be objective case, or whom.
Once you are able to identify the subject and object of a sentence, the decision whether to use “who” or “whom” will come more easily.
Now you try!
Insert who or whom in the following examples.
1. ____ shall I say is calling?
2. She shared the secret with those ____ she trusted.
3. The only people ____ they can recommend are the two experts.
4. The prize goes to the runner ____ collects the most points.
5. David feels like a king ____ receives special treatment.
(answers: 1= who; 2 = whom; 3 = whom; 4 = whom; 5 = who)