Grammar, Learning English

Confused About “Who” vs. “Whom”?

The difference between “who” and “whom” is confusing for native and non-native English speakers alike. In that sense, it is similar to “lay” vs. “lie”, which we covered in a previous article.

Both “who” and “whom” are pronouns, which means they take the place of nouns. In some contexts, we use “who” or “whom” when a person’s name is unknown. “To Whom It May Concern,” is a common salutation that we see in business letters. We use it when we want to formally address someone (such as the hiring manager of a company), but we don’t know that individual’s name.

But why don’t we write “To who it may concern”? Why do we use “whom” and not “who”? We will examine “who” and “whom” more closely, and you will learn a trick to help you keep them straight.

“Who” is a subject pronoun, while “whom” is an object pronoun.

For an in-depth look at the difference between a subject pronoun and an object pronoun, click here. However, the table below will give you a quick review:

Subject PronounsObject Pronouns
I, he, she, we, they, whome, him, her, us, them, whom
Subject pronouns are used when someone does something, feels something, thinks something, or is in a certain state of being.Object pronouns are used when someone is having something done to them or for them. They are not performing the action themselves.

The pronouns “it” and “you” can fall into either category, depending on how they are used.

Who did it?

We use “who” when a person (whose name or identity we may not know) is the subject of the sentence. “Who” can also be used for more than one person, or when we don’t know how many people are involved in a situation. We sometimes see it at the beginning of a question when we want to know which person is doing something.

Who is calling me?

Who wrote the article?

The person who left their cell phone on the bar stool should be more careful.

The kids who cleaned my garage are hard workers! (Here, the author of the sentence might know the names of the kids, but it is easier to refer to them as “The kids who cleaned the garage” than to list all their names.)

Who is working the night shift?

Anyone who gives money to that preacher on TV is a fool.

To whom was it done?

When we refer to “whom” as an object pronoun, we don’t mean that “whom” is used in place for the name of a thing. “Whom” still refers to a person. However, this is a person who is having something done to them or on their behalf; they are not performing the action themselves.

Let’s look at a quick example to help you understand the difference:

Who sent the attachment? (We use “who” because the subject of the sentence is the person who sent the attachment.)

To whom did Min send the attachment? (In this sentence, Min is the person who performed the action; the “whom” person is not doing anything.)

Sometimes “whom” is linked to a preposition, usually “to”, “for”, “from”, “about”, or “with”. The title of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (which came from a meditation by John Donne) is a well-known literary example. We don’t use prepositions this way with “who”. Therefore, looking for a preposition is one way to determine if you should use “who” or “whom” in a sentence. However, this isn’t always the case, as you can see in the example sentences below.

To whom will you ship the packages?

When I go to the office, with whom should I speak?

Whom did the manager ask to attend the conference? (Unlike the first two example sentences, this one doesn’t have a preposition before “whom”.)

Whom are we fighting in this war?

My mother doesn’t care whom I invite to the party.

Whom do you love the most?

You may think that some of the “whom” sentences sound stuffy or overly formal. In casual writing, most native English speakers would use “who” in those last three example sentences, even though “whom” is grammatically correct.

If you are a non-native English speaker, what does this mean for you? If you are doing any kind of formal writing, you certainly would want to use “whom” whenever it is correct to do so. In casual writing, or in spoken English, you can usually get away with using “who” instead of “whom”.

Here is a helpful trick

One way to know if “who” or “whom” is correct is to see what happens if you replace those words with another pronoun from the table at the beginning of this article. If you can replace “who/whom” with “I”, “he”, “she”, “we”, or “they”, then it means that “who” is correct. If you can replace “who/whom” or answer the question with “me”, “him”, “her”, “us”, or “them”, then “whom” is correct.

Here is an example to make this clearer for you. Let’s say we are going to write a sentence using either “who” or “whom”, but we aren’t sure which one is right.

I don’t know who/whom sent that email.

Now, let’s play around with this sentence a little. We will remove everything before “sent” and see what happens when we insert subject and object pronouns.

Subject PronounsObject Pronouns
I sent that email.Me sent that email.
She sent that email.Her sent that email.
He sent that email.Him sent that email.
We sent that email.Us sent that email.
They sent that email.Them sent that email.

It’s pretty clear that the sentences with the subject pronouns are correct while the ones with the object pronouns are incorrect. Therefore, this is a “who” sentence, not a “whom” sentence:

I don’t know who sent the email.

If you are asking a question, you can also try answering that question to help you figure out if “who” or “whom” is correct. Let’s go back to one of our earlier examples:

Whom do you love the most?

You may recall that this is a sentence that sounds a little odd, even though it is grammatically correct. We can check and make sure it really is grammatically correct by answering the question with pronouns. We won’t go through the entire list of pronouns this time; we will just try answering the question with “he” and “him”:

I love he the most.

I love him the most.

The second sentence with the object pronoun is correct, which means “whom” is correct, not “who”.

Another little trick

The object pronouns “him” and “them” end in “m”, the same as “whom”. This can help you remember that these pronouns are all used in the same way. When you are testing or checking sentences, it can make the process a little easier.

Hopefully, these tricks will help you remember when to use “who” and when to use “whom”. If you are still a little confused, click the blue box below. Our TextRanch editors are ready to help you 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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