Who vs. Whom: Which is Correct?

Either as a relative pronoun or question word, whom is rarely used in conversation. Formal writing, yes, but ordinary conversation, no.

With whom did you go to the movies? is correct but sounds like a police interrogation.

Who did you go to the movies with? is technically incorrect but is the way we usually say it.

Is it better to be correct and absurdly formal, or incorrect and more accurate in mimicking native speakers, including the most educated? In ordinary conversation, generally speaking, the answer is you’re right to be wrong – use who.

Still, it’s a good idea to know which is correct in a given context. The quick test in choosing between who and whom is to substitute he or him. If he sounds better, who is correct; if him sounds right, whom is correct. That’s because as a pronoun whom is used to represent the object of either a verb or a preposition, while who represents the subject of a verb.

He is the consultant whom we contacted for advice. (We contacted him.)
To whom was the letter addressed? (The letter was addressed to him.)
He is the consultant who can answer your question. (He can answer your question.)

In the two examples above, the formality can be toned down by omitting the pronoun in the first, and using the more casual who in the second:
He is the consultant we contacted for advice.
Who was the letter addressed to?

The he/him test works well unless you’re confronted with a choice between whoever and whomever as in this sentence:
You can just talk with whoever/whomever answers the phone.

Even native English speakers get confused by this, because our instinct tells us that whom, not who, should follow the preposition with. However, there is another rule in English which dictates that every verb in a tense needs a subject. Here, whoever is the correct choice, since the verb answers needs a subject.

Might there be another situation when, besides addressing the Queen at a tea party, it makes sense to use whom as an object pronoun? If you see someone walking a dog, and the dog is so big and strong that it’s all its owner can do to keep up with it, you can ask, without risk of sounding ridiculously formal: Who is walking whom?

36 Comments

Horatio

“In ordinary conversation, generally speaking, the answer is you’re right to be wrong – use who.”

Sorry, I couldn’t disagree with you more. We must strive to speak correctly instead of condoning and encouraging incorrect speech.

Ambrogio

Whom did you go to the holidays with!!!!! The use of relative pronoun with is wrong !!!!

BBoyd

Thanks for your comment. “Who” is the subject pronoun, and “whom” the object pronoun, so “whom” is definitely the correct form to use as the object of the preposition “with.” In a question, the preposition should also come first, as in “With whom did you go to the opera?”. Becoming a fluent English speaker sometimes entails more than just knowing what is correct; it also requires an understanding of how native speakers can vary their tone from formal to informal through their choice of form.

BBoyd

Technically “whom” is correct here, because “whom” is the object pronoun and “whom” is the object of the verb ask. However, in colloquial English, “whom” is being used more and more as a marker of formality than as a marker of the objective case, which means that in everyday conversation “whom” is becoming rarer even when it is technically correct as it is here. Thanks for your question!

A-Wall

Who is whom? is thus technically correct, if I’m following the logic set out above.
But if you’re wanting to know if someone is important,
we consult a ‘Who’s who’ almanac, yes?
I guess that colloquial English is winning this one, for now.

BBoyd

“Who’s who,” the contraction of “Who is who,” is actually technically correct. It’s true that the second “who” follows the verb, but position before or after the verb is not the real test of whether to use the subject pronoun “who” or the object pronoun “whom.” When a noun or pronoun after the verb does not receive the action of the verb but instead complements the subject of the verb, either by describing, renaming, or mirroring the subject, we call the verb a linking or copula verb (“be” is the most common example), and we use the subject pronoun, instead of the object pronoun, after the verb. A subject pronoun that follows a verb is called, in grammar, a subject complement or a predicative complement. In the phrase “who’s who,” the first “who” is the subject of the verb, and the second “who” is the subject complement, referring back to and mirroring the subject.

Tracy

Is it: the owners, Mel and Fran, who you may know
Or
the owners, Mel and Fran, whom you may know

BBoyd

The second version is the correct one. Whom is the object of the verb may know (you is the subject). If you rephrase it in standard subject/verb/object word order, it’s easier to see why the object relative pronoun whom is correct here: you may know them (object pronoun), not you may know they (subject pronoun).

nia

sorry what is this answer
The perplexing math problem was solved by a student
who/whom
some consider brilliant.

which one

BBoyd

Whom is correct here, not who. In the subordinate clause “a student whom some consider brilliant,” some is the subject, consider is the verb, and whom is the object of the verb. Substituting personal pronouns for the relative pronouns is perhaps an easier way of choosing between who and whom. Which sounds better to you: some consider her brilliant, or some consider she brilliant? The reason the first of these two sounds better is because the object form (her/whom) is correct here, not the subject form (she/who).

Michael Byrne

Who or whom is not a test of correct English but merely a stylistic choice.

BBoyd

I agree that tone (formal/informal) is part of style, and native English speakers often choose between who and whom based on choice of tone, but vestiges of grammar remain: if in trying to sound formal, someone says “Whom is at the door?,” most people would perceive that as both awkward style and a mistake in grammar.

nishat shetu

who is walking or who are walking which one is correct ?

BBoyd

The man who is walking down the street is a firefighter. The men who are walking down the street are firefighters. Both of these sentences are correct because who can be either singular or plural depending on the word to which it refers.

English Learner

Are both of these sentences correct?

1. To whom were you talking just now?
2. Whom were you talking to just now?

Jack Aubele

Are both of these sentences correct?

1. To whom were you talking just now?
2. Whom were you talking to just now?

BBoyd

Only the first is technically correct. Put the preposition to before the object pronoun whom.

Jack Aubele

Could you please explain about these sentences in more detail?
1. To whom were you talking just now?
2. Whom were you talking to just now?
3. Who were you talking to just now?

To my understanding, prepositions are allowed to be placed at the end of sentences in most situations in English. If the sentence “Who were you talking to just now?” is acceptable in informal settings, why is it incorrect to replace the word who with the objective form whom but still leave the preposition at the end of the sentence? Thanks.

BBoyd

It really comes down to a question of tone. Of your three examples, the first is formal, and the third is informal. The second is a mix of formal (whom instead of who for the object pronoun) and informal (putting the preposition to after the verb instead of before the relative pronoun). Mixing the two tones in the same sentence makes for non-standard usage for formal written English and non-standard usage for informal spoken English and a confusion of tones.

Shmode

I can’t believe you answered all these…
If someone asks me “Where are they?” and I have no idea who (whom?) they are talking about should I reply Who? or Whom?

Doug

How about when it’s difficult to us the he/him test. Whom/who did you see.

BBoyd

You can still use the he/him test if you rephrase the question and ask yourself which sounds better: Did you see he/him? You need the object pronoun him after the verb see, so the correct choice is Whom did you see? Keep in mind, however, that native speakers of English often use who in questions like this even when they know that whom is correct, since who as an object pronoun is becoming more and more common in informal speech.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

nineteen − 5 =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.