Thursday, 13 October 2011

When to use Who or Whom?

 I was rather surprised to see this tweet, and was even more surprised to see it being retweeted. 

So, when do we use 'whom'? To be honest, it is rarely used in informal spoken conversations, and you're more likely to see it in written form, but let's take a more detailed look at 'who' and 'whom'.

As a question word

Who is used without a following noun to ask about people.

Who is that boy standing over there?
Who was your favourite teacher?
Who said that?

Note that here we are using who to ask for the subject.

We also use who as an object in questions.

Who is she going out with?
Who does she love?
Who are they following?

Whom is possible here, but sounds rather stiff and formal.

With whom is she going out? (We prefer to use prepositions before whom)
Whom does she love?
Whom are they helping?

As a subject of a defining relative clause

Last night I saw the teacher who teaches us technology.

Who is the subject of the relative clause:

I saw the teacher. The teacher teaches us technology.

We cannot use whom, nor can we remove who.

As an object of a defining relative clause

That's the teacher who I saw last night.

Who is the object of the relative clause:

That's the teacher. I saw the teacher last night.

In this case, we can use whom (more formal) instead of who, or leave it out altogether.

That's the teacher who/whom/- I saw last night.

As a subject of a non-defining relative clause

Non-defining relative clauses are more common in a formal style, especially in writing.

I saw Mrs. Potter, who teaches us technology, last night.

We cannot remove who nor can we use whom instead.

As an object of a non-defining relative clause

That's Mrs. Potter, who I saw last night.

Since non-defining clauses are more formal, and we prefer whom in formal styles, we often replace who with whom here.

That's Mrs. Potter, whom I saw last night.

In cases where a preposition is present, we prefer it before whom.

He is very angry with Paris, who he had an argument with last week.
He is very angry with Paris, with whom he had an argument last week.

Valerie, who I told you about just now, is getting married.
Valerie, about whom I told you just now, is getting married.

Here's a group from the Swinging Sixties, Juicy Lucy, performing a Bo Diddley tune, 'Who do you love?'



  1. While WHOM is appropriate in the object case, its (correct) use has been disappearing as the actual distinction it shows is functionally rather small. I predict it will disappear in a few generations. I'll keep using it, though--except when standing out would make me seem snobbish.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Alan. Yes, I agree. I do use it too...sometimes. It's more a case of what comes out naturally. I don't stop to think, nor do most native speakers, I bet, except when we write. Whether it will disappear completely remains to be seen, but as long as there are people like us using it... ;-)

  3. Some uses of WHOM will remain frozen inside of other structure. "To whom it may concern" comes to mind.

    Also, I think some of my ready use of WHOM comes from linking for speech fluency, not unlike French liaison. An example might be "whom_I'd suspected for a while now" where the M allows the speaker to link two vowels smoothly.

  4. Thank you for clarifying the contentious issue of "whom", Chiew. It would indeed be ridiculous to say "Whom do you love?"

    I also liked Alan's idea re linking for speech fluency - interesting thought.


    1. Thanks, Leo. Yes, I don't think about linking as we don't link as much as the French, for example, but, we do link, cuppa tea and used to being prime examples, so, yes, Alan's thought makes perfect sense.

  5. As Leo said, it would indeed be ridiculous to say 'Whom do you love'. So it's a shame that websites like GrammarGirl persist in saying that, for example, the Rolling Stones (and therefore also Bo Diddley) were being 'grammatically incorrect'. No mention of register, simply incorrect.

    Incidentally, you get an interesting result if you Ngram the two together: 'Whom do you love' is on top between about 1830 and 1960 (the golden age of prescriptivism?), but since 1960, 'Who do you love' has far outstripped the 'whom' version.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Will. I'm not surprised at N-gram's results. Like I said, "whom" is more formal and language has become increasingly informal through the years, don't you think?

      As for the continual insistence of the usage of "whom", I think it's a US thing. Unfortunately, I find not all US grammar sites check on BR usage before laying out the rules - perhaps UK sites are the same, I don't know. I personally always try to do a little research first.

      I find that there are so many little differences between UK and US usage - just by seeing tweets on "incorrect" usage will tell you so. Sometimes, I scream NOT IN UK! But, other times, I just can't be bothered.

  6. Pang this blog is confusing. For example you post "That's Mrs. Potter, who I saw last night." and then suggest "whom" be used.

    It you're going to use sample sentences to test which usage the reader is supposed to pick, do that separately, having both sentences in the same section only muddles which you are suggesting is the correct word.

    I'm going to take it back down to an elementary school level and suggest that you simply swap in "he" or "him" to figure out whether the usage is as a subject or object.

    For example someone asked you about the correctness of "Whom do you love?" What you need to do in that case is present these 2 options:

    "Do you love HIM?" or "Do you love HE?"

    the structure of the sentence does not change, it is easy to see that in this case it's the object. The proper usage is "Whom do you love?" Not because X% of ignorant speakers choose "whom" or because of "formal" or informal. Because that is the correct answer.

    Talking about "formal" is abject ignorance. The issue of low speech or register is fine, but that doesn't obviate the need for one to UNDERSTAND the usage. For example if someone asks you "do I use option 1 or option 2" you responding "option 1 sounds fine" or "option 2 sound too formal to me" isn't an answer. What you need to do if you're going to post about the usage is to say "Option 1 is an object and option 2 is a subject. Option 2 is the correct usage because the word is establishing the actor of the clause. But in this case you could choose incorrect usage to convey a sense of familiarity etc"

    Like any sort of instruction, before you can give the shortcut you have to properly convey the basis and logic of the decision. Otherwise all you are doing is contributing to the perpetuating of ignorance and the decline of the language


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.