Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Flash Card: Who Did What to Whom?

When to use "who" and when "whom" — this is the subject of our inquiry (and the object of our search).

"Who" denotes the subject of a sentence; "whom" denotes the object. Grammar Girl is typically succinct when she notes, "The subject of the sentence is the person doing something, and the object of the sentence is having something done to them."

If you aren't clear on the subject/object underpinning of who/whom (and most of us aren't), you've got a 50/50 shot at getting it right. Unfortunately, there seems to be a tendency to err on the side of "whom" because it sounds more proper, a tad grand, downright British. Better safe than sorry, right?

(People also operate on this assumption with "I" [subject] and "me" [object] because there's something about, say, "you and I" that just sounds fancier — and thus more correct — than "you and me.")

But "whom" is only right if the person you're talking about is, in fact, the object of the sentence.

I wasn't born with an innate understanding of which is the subject and which is the object or when to use "who" and when to use "whom." I have to do the math every time. The calculation is predicated on my knowledge that "who" corresponds to "he" and "she" (subjects), and "whom" corresponds to "him" and "her" (objects).

Gender equality aside for the moment, the thing to remember is that "whom" points to "him." Whom/him — both end in "m." If you associate "whom" with "him," you'll always know when to use "whom" and, by process of elimination, when to use "who."

How does all this grammatical math and word association play out in practice? I'm glad you asked. If I feel a who/whom coming on, I stop, drop and roll the sentence around in my head. Take this one:

"Populate your company overview page using informative descriptions about whom you serve."

I'd rearrange "whom you serve" as "You serve him." You wouldn't say, "You serve he," so "whom" is correct there because "him" = "whom."

Similarly, in the construction "to whom it may concern," you use "whom" because the person involved is a him, not a he. I know that because I reconfigured "whom it may concern" as "It may concern him," which I arrived at after trying the clearly wrong "It may concern he."

Those are both "whom" examples; now for a couple of "who" examples.

"The biggest chore of training was coping with the nitpicking, rank-pulling, much-loathed lieutenant who oversaw their flights."

If you rework the part about the subject, it would go: "The lieutenant who oversaw their flights," i.e. "He oversaw their flights," not "Him oversaw their flights." So "who" is indeed correct there because "he" = "who."

Here's another one: "Who let the dogs out?"

I wasn't born with an innate understanding of when to use "who" and when to use "whom." I have to do the math every time.
How do I know whether "who" is correct there? Because if you substitute "he" for "who" — "He let the dogs out" — the sentence still works. By contrast, you wouldn't say, "Him let the dogs out," thus you can be sure "Whom let the dogs out?" is incorrect. (Even less correct: "Whom let the dogs out? Whom? Whom?")

Familiar titles and expressions support the convention that "who" does stuff while "whom" has stuff done to him:

  • The Girl Who Played With Fire
  • He who laughs last laughs best.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.
Beware, however, the notoriously unreliable grammar of pop music. Though "Who Let the Dogs Out?" is correct, "Who Do You Love?" is not — it should be "Whom Do You Love?" (you'd rearrange it as "You love him," not "You love he"). But that's not very rock 'n' roll.

Of course, determining when to use "who" and when to use "whom" is much easier when you're writing than when you're speaking, but you can puzzle it out "live" in conversation, too. I generally do this as an aside, somewhat sotto voce. For the most part, whomever I'm speaking to — "I'm speaking to him," i.e. "whom" is the way to go here — is relieved to see that even a stone smartypants like me has to think (in this case out loud) before she speaks.

A tip of the hat to reader James Clark of Los Angeles (co-proprietor of the delightful Silver Lake boutique/gallery Dustmuffin), who suggested this topic — and to whom I'm extremely grateful.

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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.