Who or Whom?
Update: I’ve created a Who or Whom? Quiz to test your knowledge of this topic. Try it before you read the article!
The difference between who and whom is a matter of case. There are three cases for personal pronouns: nominative, objective, and possessive.
I’ll use the first person singular pronoun as an example:
nominative case: I (I love my Chihuahua.)
objective case: me (My Chihuahua loves me.)
possessive case: my and mine (I am my Chihuahua’s and she is mine.)
The nominative case is used when the pronoun is the subject of a verb.
The objective case is used when the pronoun is an object — either of a verb or a preposition.
Possessive case pronouns are used to show, well, possession, of course. But we’ll leave possessive case alone since it isn’t important to the who/whom question.
The pronoun who is in the nominative case, and whom is in the objective case. (whose is the possessive case, fyi). This means you use who when it’s the subject of the verb:
Who decapitated the Barbie doll?
And whom is used as the object of verbs and prepositions (those are the only parts of speech that have objects):
The buffalo stampede trampled whom? (Whom is the object of the verb trampled.)
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. (Whom is the object of the preposition for.)
This is why it is correct to write “To whom it may concern” (Whom is the object of the preposition to).
A note of caution: Watch out for tricky little things called predicate nominatives. Predicate nominatives usually look like the objects of verbs, but they are not. They follow linking verbs like am, is, are, and the other be verbs. Linking verbs don’t have objects. They have predicate nominatives or predicate adjectives. A predicate nominative renames the subject. If it is a pronoun, it should therefore be in the nominative case — like who.
Example: The ventriloquist is who?
Lots of smart people use whom in a sentence like this because it looks similar to a sentence like The ventriloquist married whom? But the fact that the verb is is a linking verb and married is an action verb changes everything. Who in the first sentence is not an object, but a predicate nominative, and therefore requires the nominative case.
It may (or may not) help to insert the more common pronoun I or me in the sentence. If I would be appropriate, go with who. If me is right, you’ll want whom:
I ate the guacamole. = Who ate the guacamole?
The guacamole ate me. = The guacamole ate whom?
On the Inevitable Demise of Whom
One final comment. As I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, language is always changing through popular usage. Grammar purists can only hold out for so long against the way people really talk and write. That’s why we don’t use thou, thee and thy anymore, for example. It’s also why gay means more than just happy and why nobody uses the word shall any longer. We can like the changes or not, but the language will and does change.
And because that’s true, I’m predicting that the word whom is doomed. Whom feels awkward to a growing majority of American English speakers, and I don’t think there will be much resistance when dictionaries finally declare that who can be considered either nominative or objective case. It’s just a matter of time before whom is considered archaic.
Thoughts on this or another topic? Please leave them below.