“Whom” may seem like an overly formal variation of “who” that doesn’t have a place in modern communication, but they are different words, and they serve different purposes. The next time you get stuck trying to decide which version of “who” or “whom” to use, take a quick pause. Here are three key areas where people mix up the use of “who” and “whom,” and how to get it right.
When Using “Whom” To Begin Questions
Simply put, “who” and “whom” are both pronouns. “Who” is used to refer to the subject of a sentence, and “whom” refers to the object of a verb or preposition in a sentence.
When asking a question, “who” often sounds more natural, but sometimes “whom” is the correct form. A quick trick for deciding which version to use is to consider the answer to the question being asked. If the solution could use a “she,” “he,” or “they” pronoun, then the correct form is “who.” If it’s a “him,” “her,” or “them” option, you’ll want to use “whom.” As an even easier mnemonic, if the answer could be a pronoun with an “m” (him/them) in it, then “whom” is the correct word.
Take a look at these examples:
Who drove the car? She drove the car.
Whom do I ask about the book? You ask him.
Who cooked dinner? He cooked dinner.
Whom did you visit? I visited them.
In these instances, the pronoun tied to “who” is directly performing the action, but the one tied to “whom” is receiving the action. Each word has a slightly different function, with “whom” being more removed from the sentence's action.
Using “Whom” Inside Sentences
Of course, “who” and “whom” don’t just pop up at the start of questions. They can appear in the middle of phrases, too, but they can be analyzed in the same way to help you decide which version to use.
Sarah isn’t sure who called on Tuesday. (Who called? He called.)
I don’t remember to whom I sent the email. (To whom did I send the email? To him.)
Mixing Up “Who,” “Whom,” and “That”
“Who” and “whom” are close in both meaning and spelling, but “that” is sometimes used as a replacement for both words. However, they’re not interchangeable. The words “who” and “whom” refer only to people, whereas “that” mainly describes things or objects. Since “that” refers to the subject of a sentence, it’s often substituted for “who” — it’s incorrect, but the sentence is still decipherable. But “that” would never be used instead of “whom.”
Anna is the one who brought the pies.
Apple and cherry are pie flavors that Anna brought.
Anna is the youngest of three sisters, all of whom are excellent cooks.
You’ll notice “who” and “that” might sound fine if swapped in the first two sentences, but “all of that are excellent cooks” sounds extremely odd. That’s because “whom” serves a different function in the sentence — it’s the object of the verb, not the subject.
Though it’s important to understand the rules behind using “who” and “whom,” most English speakers will still say what sounds most comfortable. Many native speakers think “whom” has a formal ring to it, so they don’t use it in everyday conversation. For example, you probably won’t hear people asking, “For whom did you bake this cake?” at a birthday party, even if it is grammatically correct.
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