Tips for Who vs Whom

So here’s the deal: who is a subject, and whom is an object. Simple, right? Not really. The thing is, the vast majority of native English speakers have absolutely no clue when to use “who” and when to use “whom,” so we just sort close our eyes and pick one and hope our audience doesn’t know the difference either. Sometimes, though, blindly picking a pronoun and hoping for the best just doesn’t quite cut it. In those circumstances, the following schnazzy tips might just help.


Step One: Untangle that Snarly Sentence

We tend to like to use who and whom in really twisty sentences. Normal sentences get all flipped around and crazy-like once “who” enters the mix. Why? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect it has something to do with who/whom’s status as question words. (“I am talking to him” is a statement: “I am talking to whom?” is a question.) Who and whom tend to appear in parts of sentences that most other pronouns stay far away from. Restructuring the sentence in question, then, might help.


He is the one in whom I place my trust.


I place my trust in whom.


Step Two: Make the Question an Answer

If you’re dealing with a question, try turning the question into an answer. (Okay, so this is really more of an offshoot of step one, but four steps are better than three.)


To whom am I speaking?


I am speaking to whom.


Step Three: Switch Out Your Pronouns

If untangling your sentence still doesn’t make it quite clear, try replacing the “who/whom” with “she/her,” “he/him,” or “they/them” (you/you typically does not work as well in this scenario, but you’re welcome to try it, just so it doesn’t feel left out).


Step Four: Consider Your Audience

By this point, you’ve hopefully figured out which word is properly situated for your circumstances. (If you haven’t and the word is of vital importance, I would consider appealing to a Higher Grammar Authority.) Remember, though, that the grammatically correct word isn’t necessarily the right one: there will be times when your audience may actually prefer a wrong “who/whom” to a right one. If you’re writing a script for a gangster movie, for example, then “Who you talkin’ to?” is most likely far more appropriate than “To whom are you speaking?” The more formal the situation, the more formal the tone. The more formal the tone, the more important the grammar.

One Comments

  • Cate Daczyk

    February 8, 2012

    I really loved your presentation (and I loved you used quotes from Dickens). It’s so sad to admit that I’m a senior in college and still get confused when to use who/whom. I’ve been able to navigate which to use when I’m asking a question; other than that, I’m hopeless. Next time I’m in a who/whom pickle, I’ll hopefully be able to figure it out.


Leave a Reply