Who vs. whom

Imagine my despair when I realized I’m down to the grammar dredges in my ideas folder. Those would be my least favorites, such as “who” vs. “whom” and “that” vs. “which.” I guess I can’t avoid these forever, so I’ll start with “who” vs. “whom.”

Who/whom is one of the more difficult English grammar distinctions to remember. Even in college, I always thought of it as royal pain, especially in Professor Pamela Yagle’s introductory grammar and style classes. Seriously, who (or is it whom?) says, “Whom did you vote for?” or “You asked whom to the dance?” Throw a sentence like that out at your next office party and you’ll be eating lunch alone until you retire. You might as well grow Vulcan ears and a tail.

I’ll spare you all the technical grammatical explanations that go along with subjective and objective personal pronouns and skip right to the best part – the shortcut. And you get it for free! Back in the day, I usually had to rely on the “he/him” trick to figure out the correct word. I’ll admit I still have to use it at times, but at least I’m human, which is more than you can say for the Office Social Outcast above.

Check to see which pronoun can replace the questionable word: If it can be replaced with “he,” use “who.” If “him” fits better, use “whom.” It’s not infallible, but it will work a lot of the time.

Here are some examples:

Who/whom went on vacation last week?
He went on vacation. That means “who” is correct.

The adviser who/whom the president said had leaked the information was asked to resign.
The president said he had leaked the information, therefore, “who” is correct.

Who/whom did the grand jury indict?
The grand jury indicted him, therefore, “whom” is correct.

Justin, who/whom we all love to hear sing, will not be at the concert next week.
We love to hear him sing, so “whom” is correct.

I need to explain another trick – “they/them.” Some people would charge you big bucks for this knowledge, but I believe in sharing. To figure out which word to use in the following sentences, replace “who” with “they” and “whom” with “them.”

Research has shown that children who/whom have been overprotected often become adults for who/whom life is difficult beyond the family circle.
They have been overprotected, therefore, the correct word is “who” in the first part of the sentence and life is difficult for them beyond the family circle, so the correct word is “whom” in the last part of the sentence.

If you’d like a more detailed explanation of sentence construction using “who” and “whom,” check out When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style. You can pick one up for about $20 and it’s loaded with other excellent information that will help you in all forms of writing.

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