Learning the Difference Between WHO and WHOM

By Levi Busch

(Test Preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT), English Literature at The Edge Learning Center)

1) Technical breakdown of the difference between who and whom

  • Subjects vs. objects

2) Not enough?

  • Trick #1: Him/Her Substitution

3) Still not enough?

  • “Whom” can never perform verbs

At the risk of coming across as profoundly out of touch, I must admit that I have never been plagued with the confusion that seems to attend most of my students when they are forced to confront the vagaries of grammar. Although I did not study grammar in elementary, middle, or high school, I have been an avid reader my whole life. When I was young, I read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and, fancying myself a survivalist, slept in a tent outside my house for a week straight, eating nothing but the Hungarian blood sausage I made with my grandmother. Slightly later in my teenage years, I devoured entire issues of The New Yorker, absorbing their poetry, reportage, and essays in an effort to expand my understanding of the world beyond the confines of my rural hometown. Even now, I always have a book on me. A copy of Nathan Hill’s The Nix rests within my bag at this very moment. This is all to say that reading has formed the spinal cord of my intellectual life, and I could not imagine the person I would be without it.

Why am I giving all of these ridiculous details about my reading habits? Well, it’s partially because I need you to know that for the majority of my life, I never knew the exact reason I used ‘who’ and ‘whom’ correctly. Children are great learners due to their astounding capacity for knowledge acquisition, and my early obsession with reading put me right in touch with strong grammatical models that my brain started to silently copy. By the time I was in middle school, I had read the words so many times and in so many different contexts that the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ had been stamped into my usage. This is just one of the many little benefits you get from reading often!

Now, I can’t expect to convince everyone reading to immediately start a lifelong relationship with the written word. It might be a great way to foster an intuitive sense of grammar, but it’s not exactly time efficient. I’m also not going to give the actual grammatical explanation; instead, we’ll discuss two informal tricks that should eliminate your doubts about whether you should be using ‘who’ or ‘whom.’ Let’s get into them!

Trick #1: Pronoun Substitution

Whenever you use the word ‘who,’ you should be able to replace it with the pronouns I, you, he, she, we, and they (subject pronouns).

Whenever you use the word ‘whom,’ you should be able to replace it with the pronouns me, you, him, her, us, and them (object pronouns).

Let’s run through two examples:

1.) Whom will be coming to the banquet this evening?

Due to the rules we’ve stipulated above, we know that we should be able to replace ‘whom’ with any of the object pronouns. I’m going to choose the word ‘them’ and see how it goes:

Them will be coming to the banquet this evening.

Hmm… This sounds terribly incorrect. Let’s divert course and choose one of the subject pronouns:

They will be coming to the banquet this evening.

This sounds much better! Because we used a subject pronoun here, we know that we need to use the word ‘who.’ The sentence should read “Who will be coming to the banquet this evening?”

2.) I’m sending this letter to who?

Since we’re debating whether or not ‘who’ works in this context, I’m going to replace the word with the subject pronoun ‘he.’

I’m sending this letter to he.

No one other than cavemen speak like this. Let’s switch it up and use an object pronoun:

I’m sending the letter to him.

This is clearly the best option. Since we now know we need to use an object pronoun, the sentence should read “I’m sending this letter to whom?”

Trick #2: ‘Whom’ can never perform verbs!

A Facebook friend used ‘whom’ incorrectly in a post about two weeks ago, and although I stifled the pedantic urge to correct him, I am petty enough to repost it below:

I’ve recently reconnected with a high school friend whom left the country right after graduation.

We could use Trick #1 to fix this issue (note that we can say “he left the country” and not “him left the country”), but another way of looking at it is to see if ‘whom’ is performing a verb: if it is, it’s not being used correctly.

Taking a look at the above example, we see the simple two word phrase “whom left” and already know that this sentence doesn’t work. We need to change it to “who left” to make sure that we’re always using subject pronouns to perform main verbs.

Related Blog: Ye Old Timey English: The Stumbling Block for AP and SAT II English


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