Professional Style

Who vs. Whom

November 2009
Spot the Error

When Owen returned home from the Academy Awards ceremony, his children were eager to hear about the famous people he’d met, who he’d sat next to, and what they’d talked about.

No, the mistake with the sentence above is not that it ends with a preposition (which, by the way, is not against the rules of grammar—however, that’s a topic for another day). The mistake is the use of who for whom.

Granted, people misuse who for whom frequently in conversation, and the practice has become an accepted solecism, however, in written communications, we need to be careful lest we appear ignorant. Despite the desire of some liberal writers, linguists, dictionary consultants, and educators to banish whom from the English language, it hasn’t happened yet, and it probably won’t happen any time soon. So, until that time, we need to use the word correctly.

Without getting into the reasons why we should use whom instead of who and vice versa, let’s just focus on when we should use one or the other.

  • Who – Used when “I,” “we,” “he,” “she,” or “they” could be used as a substitute.
  • Whom – Used when “me,” “us,” “him,” “her,” or “them” could be used as a substitute.

In the “Academy Awards” sentence above, if we turn the clause “who he sat next to” into a straightforward sentence, we get “he sat next to ________.” Let’s now substitute a couple of pronouns from the lists above to fill in the blank … say, “he” and “him.” Which works better in the sentence? Without a doubt, “him,” and “him” correlates with whom. So, the correct word to use in the “Academy Award” sentence is whom.

Think you’ll have difficulty keeping the substitute pronouns straight? Try this. Always use the “he/him” or “they/them” combinations. If the correct substitute pronoun ends with an “M,” use whoM; otherwise, use who.

~ Thank you, Jane B., for the topic suggestion.

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