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Who and Whom

Are you confused?

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Let's face it, whom is a problem word. Nobody seems to be quite sure about its proper usage. As a matter of fact, some of the rules that have dictated its use in the past are now considered "old fashioned" and are commonly ignored.

The truth is, very few people use whom in speech when it's technically correct. Even scholars who know the rules don't always apply them. It just sounds too puffy sometimes.

Example

"Whom were you talking to?" just sounds a little uptight, doesn't it? Most teachers will use the word who in this case, even if they know better.

Nonetheless, the word still exists, and some people do take all grammar rules very seriously. Some college officials, for example, will want to see and hear excellent grammar in your communications. It's well worth your while to understand the basic rules underlying the use of who and whom.

The key to understanding when to use who or whom is knowing the different between subjective case and objective case.

Whom is used as an object.

Who is at the door?
Whom did you see at the door?

Do you understand why who is correct in one sentence and whom is correct in the other? The answer is, who is always used as the subject of a sentence or clause, and whom is always used as an object.

In the first sentence of the set above, who is the subject. In the second sentence, you is the subject and whom is the direct object.

Whom did you recommend for the job?
Are there any people whom you would recommend?

Notice, in both sentences, you is the subject. Whom is the object of the verb recommend.

Whom is also used as the object of a preposition.

Prepositions include words like to, for, about, under, over, of, after, and before.

Look at these examples:

  • I'll begin my letter with the phrase: To Whom It May Concern.
  • I don't know from whom the love letter came.
  • They fought over whom?
  • After whom do I enter the stage?

Do you think these sentence sound odd? They do, indeed. That is exactly why the word whom will probably disappear from the English language one day. It just sounds a little awkward in many circumstances, even when it's technically correct.

So what can you do?

First of all, consider your audience. If you find yourself speaking to a person you'd like to impress, like an admission official from Harvard University, for example, then you should simply pause and think before you speak.

It won't sound strange. Think about it; many intelligent people pause a lot while they're talking. They're thinking before they speak!

So if you're speaking in an important situation like the one above, stop and think before using who or whom. Is it subjective case or objective you want to use?

If you're confused about subjects and objects and can't think fast when you find yourself speaking in public, you can either avoid using who and whom or you can go with your gut feeling and say whichever sounds better. You'll probably be right.

You can also use this simple test in your head.

Silently replace the word with he or him to see which sounds better. He is the equivalent of who (subjective) and him is the equivalent of whom (objective).

For instance, if you want to decide which is correct in this sentence:

Who/Whom should I consider as a college recommendation?

Re-arrange the sentence in your head so it will make sense using him or he. You'll come up with the following choices:

I should consider him...
I should consider he...
Him is clearly better. Therefore, the correct word in the sentence above will be whom.
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