Category Archives: Who or Whom

To Whom It May Concern

Reader Sara Kuhlman–the writer of this site: –enquired about the correct usage of who and whom.   (She gets extra credit for suggesting an article, by the way.  Those of you looking for points ought to do the same.)  Here begins the lesson.

This question illustrates something that used to be fundamental to the structure of English, just as it was with Latin and still is with German:  case endings.  As I learned back when I took Linguistics in college (sometime around the sack of Lindisfarne), the following sentences are different because of the order of the words:

The dog bites the man.

The man bites the dog.

Modern English tells us what grammatical function a word performs generally by its position in the sentence.  English is a Subect Verb Object language, as are many modern Indo-European languages.  In Old English or Latin, on the other hand, word order didn’t indicate grammatical function.  That was shown by the endings of the words.  Thus:

Canis virum mordet.

Vir canem mordet.

Latin tends to put the verb at the end of the sentence and the subject at the beginning.  The object and other words fit somewhere in between.  But that’s not necessary, depending on the emphasis.  Canis is the subject of the first sentence because it ends in -is.  It’s in the accusative case (the receiver of the action) in the second sentence, as indicated by -em.

For a number of reasons that would take us into an excess of digression, English lost most of its case endings.  (If you’re curious, it involved the Vikings, as many good things do.)  These days, we have plural markers and possessives, both greatly simplified.  (If you don’t believe that, study some Latin.)  Case endings are the most obvious with pronouns.  Children get them confused, but eventually they figure out that I is the subject pronoun.  Remember the “me so horny” line from Full Metal Jacket?  That’s creepy precisely because it makes the prostitute seem like a child.

So what about who and whom?  One way to simplify the question is to replace who with he and whom with him.  (I’m using the masculine pronoun because the endings match nicely.)  Consider the following:

Who is at the door?

He is at the door.

In each case, the pronoun is the subject of the sentence.  Now for a pair of examples with pronouns as objects of prepositions:

You gave it to whom?

I gave it to him.

In each case, the pronouns are indirect objects.  Those are easy.  Try these two:

She kissed whom?

She kissed him.

Now we reach a situation in which a lot of speakers of English would use who.  “She kissed who?”  That doesn’t sound wrong to many.  But think about this one:  She kissed he.  That’s just wrong and for the same reason.  In the movie, Sleuth, Andrew Wyke asked Milo Tindle, “Whom did you kill?”  Tindle sneers at Wyke’s correct usage.  Yes, being correct gets us laughed at, but in moments like that, we must consider the source.

But what about more difficult cases (pardon the pun)?  All right, here’s one:

I objected to the candidate who/whom he supported.

In that situation, whom is correct.  He supported him, not he.  Oh, but it’s not always pretty:

I’ll give an A to whoever/whomever deserves it.

I wrote that when the pronoun is the object of the preposition, we use whom.  But here, every word after to is collectively the object.  In this sentence, he deserves it, so whoever is correct.

All right, now for just a little bit more.  Try this:

Billybob called anyone who/whom he thought had some beer.

That one’s being pesty.  He thought whom seems the obvious answer to a lot of people, but drop he thought out of the sentence, and you’ll see that pronoun is the subject of the verb had, so who is correct.  But let’s try another sentence:

Billybob was grateful to the ones who/whom he had called.

In this sentence, the pronoun in question is not the subject of the verb.  It’s the receiver of the action.  That being the case, whom is the right pronoun.

There now, doesn’t that make everything clear?  The key is the pronoun substitution–he for who and him for whom.  That will get you through the night most of the time.  In other situations, this kind of confusion is a good argument for writing your sentences within your reach.