Who vs Whom: The Difference and How to Use Them
Who vs Whom: an old favorite point of contention (discussion point). Admittedly, even I, your trusted weekly blogger, have trouble sometimes remembering which is which. Maybe it’s because the pronoun “you” is the same regardless (in all cases) if the object is direct or indirect…? Or because whom is weird to pronounce…?
The good news is when it comes down to understanding the difference between who and whom, it’s actually not that hard! Just like with Affect vs Effect, there’s a very simple trick to remember it.
If you’re trying to navigate (handle, decide) who vs whom, use this little trick:
If you can replace (exchange) the who or whom with a hypothetical he, use who.
If you can replace the who or whom with a hypothetical him, it’s whom.
A good way to remember this is to connect the ‘m’ at the end of him with the ‘m’ in whom. That’s my mnemonic (trick to remember something, Eselsbrücke). Thank you, Grammar Girl!
- Who called you last night? He called me last night.
- Whom did you give the tickets to? I gave the tickets to him.
So what, exactly, is the grammar explanation for who vs whom, anyway? (If you aren’t interested in grammar, skip to the bottom!)
When to Use Who
Who is used when you are asking for the subject (or the do-er of the verb) of the sentence. The answer to your who question will give you the subject.
- “Who was on the phone?”
- “Who played Han Solo in Star Wars?”
Let’s now use our newfound trick to reverse the question to find the subject of the sentence.
The answer to these questions would be that hypothetical “he”. In other words, “He was on the phone,” and “He played Han Solo”.
Just to confirm (make sure) again: you wouldn’t say, “Him played Han Solo.” You would say, “He played Han Solo.” Therefore, who is appropriate here in the question.
When to Use Whom
Whom is used to find out the object of a verb or a preposition. In other words, the object is the thing that is being acted upon (the receiver of the verb) in the sentence.
Here are some examples:
- “To whom it may concern, …”
- “Whom do I pay for the tickets?”
Think of our handy trick. You are writing to hiM, not to he. Or, you’re paying hiM for the tickets, not he. This trick will certainly come in handy!
The Problem with Whom
Let’s be honest. We native-speakers hear whom so rarely nowadays in colloquial (every day, slang) speech and writing that many people don’t use it at all. Some people only use whom when they are trying to sound more formal. And many native speakers probably couldn’t tell you the difference between the two words.
Crazy, I know!
That said, there are definitely times when whom is used in set or idiomatic phrases. You’ll probably hear the word whom most often in the phrase, “To whom it may concern,” which you can use at the beginning of a formal letter when you don’t know the name of the proper (correct, right) recipient.
Likewise, we would all recognize the book For Whom the Bell Tolls and would correctly use “With whom….” or “for whom…” (not “with who” or “for who”) in formal writing. We’re just not always good about using it in the moment of speaking.
Do you think you’ve got the hang of this tricky grammar point? Try it out and see!
Are there other grammar points like who vs whom you’re interested in learning about on the Bespeaking blog? Let us know what they are in the comments below!
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Erin Duffin lives in Berlin, is an English teacher, yoga instructor, and now feels slightly obligated to never make this who vs whom mistake again! Wish her luck!
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