Knowing when to use "whom" versus "who" can be difficult for even the most careful writers and speakers. Many writers and grammarians hope the day comes when "whom" is cast aside and designated by dictionaries as archaic.
Indeed, Paul Brians, a professor in the Department of English at Washington State University, says, "'Whom' has been dying an agonizing death for decades." Until the last nail is placed in the coffin, however, it will be helpful to learn when to use "whom" versus "who" in various circumstances.
How and When to Use Whom
Put simply, use whom-which is a pronoun-when it is the object of a sentence. If you can replace the word with "her," "him," or "them" for example, use "whom." You'll know when to use "whom" if the pronoun is used in the objective case, or action is being done to the pronoun. Take the sentence:
- Whom do you believe?
The sentence may sound pretentious, even snobbish. But it is correct because "whom" is the subject of the infinitive "to," as well as the object of the sentence as a whole. Turn the sentence around so that the object is at the end:
- You were talking to whom?
When you replace "whom" with "him," it becomes even clearer:
- You were talking to him.
- Were you talking to him?
When to Use "Who"
If "whom" is used for the objective case, "who" is used for the subjective case-when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence, or the person creating the action. Take the sentence:
- Who is at the door?
The pronoun "who" is the subject of the sentence. Check this by replacing "who" with a subjective pronoun, swapping in "she" or "he" for "who," as in:
- She is at the door.
- He is at the door.
"Who" is always used as the subject of a sentence or clause, and "whom" is always used as an object.
In the following sentences, "who" is correctly used in the subjective case. You can check this by replacing the pronoun "who" with another subjective pronoun, such as "she," "he," or "you," for example:
- Who is coming to dinner? (He is coming to dinner?)
- Who was that masked man? (He was that masked man? or He was the masked man.)
- Sally is the woman who got the job. (She got the job.)
As previously noted, you'll know when to use "whom" if the pronoun is used in the objective case, or action is being done to the pronoun, as in:
- To Whom It May Concern. (It may concern him.)
- I don't know from whom the love letter came. (The love letter came from him.)
- They fought over whom? (They fought over him? or They fought over them?)
- After whom do I enter the stage? (I enter the stage after him.)
- Whom did you recommend for the job? (I recommended him for the job.)
- "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (The title of this famous Ernest Hemingway novel is saying, "The Bell Rings for Him.")
Some of these sentences may sound odd, and this is why the word "whom" will probably disappear from the English language one day. As used in these examples, "whom" sounds a little awkward, even when it's technically correct.
How to Remember the Difference
The key to understanding when to use "whom" or "who" is knowing the difference between subjective and objective case. Once you can easily identify the subject and the object of a sentence or clause, you will be able to figure out the correct usage of "who" and "whom." For instance, if you want to decide which is correct in this sentence:
- Who/Whom should I consider as a college recommendation?
Rearrange the sentence so that it will make sense using "him" or "he." You'll come up with the following choices:
- I should consider him for the college recommendation.
- I should consider he for the college recommendation.
The pronoun "him" is clearly better. Therefore, the correct word in the sentence above will be "whom." Remember this simple trick, and you'll always know when to use "whom" and when to use "who."