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Grammar Clinic: Who or Whom -- Which One Shall I Use?
Someone asked me a grammar question the other day which I thought would make for a good hub. The question was when is it appropriate to use who and when is it appropriate to use whom? These two words perform different functions yet are quite similar and often get confused. Below I offer an explanation of how to distinguish between the two.
Simple But Not Easy
There is a simple rule for remembering when to use who and when to use whom -- namely, that both whom and him end with the letter m. The idea behind this rule is that one uses whom when one would normally use him (or her) and one would use who instead of he or she.
While this rule sounds simple, applying it is not necessarily easy.
One problem that arises is that people aren't always clear on when to use him and when to use he. Obviously if you don't know the difference between he and him, the rule for who and whom won't do you any good at all.
He/she and him/her get confused more often than one might imagine. You sometimes hear Me and her are going to the store. Maybe that sentence is allowed colloquially, but grammatically it's wrong. The correct sentence would be She and I are going to the store. I've heard people -- even respected, well-educated people -- use expressions like him and I or she and me, and this is not correct either.
The Object Is . . .
The more complicated (but ultimately more reliable) rule for who or whom is that who is always a subject and whom is always an object. All right. So what's the difference between a subject and an object? Master this and you will have a lot of grammar figured out, not only in English but in many other languages as well.
The subject of a sentence (or of a clause, which we'll get to in a minute) is the person or thing that is performing some action. I am going to the store. In that sentence I am doing something. What am I doing? Going to the store. Thus I is the subject of the sentence. You don't say Me is going to the store. It's I. I am going to the store.
The object of a sentence, on the other hand, is the person or thing that is being acted upon. Thus in the sentence I am saluting him, I would be the subject (I am the person doing the saluting) and him would be the object (he is the one receiving my salute). Because he is an object, the correct word to use is him and not he.
Now let's say that he's a sergeant and I get promoted to a lieutenant. The protocol would change and so would the actor and the recipient: He is saluting me. In this case he (not him) is the actor and the recipient of the action is me (not I).
In English, we have one group of pronouns for subjects and a different group of pronouns for objects. I, we, he, she, and they are subject pronouns. Me, us, him, her, and them are object pronouns. (It and you are special cases in that each can be either a subject pronoun or an object pronoun.)
Note also that in most cases, if we have a preposition -- by, with, for, from, and so on -- that too will take an object, called the object of the preposition: with me, for him, near her. You don't say with I, for he, or near she, although there are some exceptions, which we'll also get to.
Some Books To Help Answer Your Questions
Getting a Bit More Subtle
So how does all this relate to who and whom? Well, just as he is a subject pronoun, who is a subject pronoun. And whom is an object pronoun just like him is. That's a great way to tell if you are using the correct word -- substitute he or him for the word you're struggling over and see which one sounds right.
Thus you can tell that the question Who did you go with? -- a very common question -- is actually incorrect. It should be Whom did you go with? because the answer would be I went with him, not I went with he. In conversation it's very common to drop the -m when asking a question, especially because the -m can be said so quickly as to not be noticeable, but it's not grammatically correct.
What can also be tricky is that the subject and the object of a sentence can change with one hardly being aware of it. Consider the following sentences:
1. I am meeting him at the store.
2. He is meeting me at the store.
At first glance, these two sentences appear to be the same. They certainly contain the same information. Two people are meeting each other at a store, and it's the same two people who are doing the meeting. But the sentences are not identical. In the first sentence I am the actor -- I am encountering someone at the store. Him refers to the person I am meeting. In the second sentence we flip things around. He becomes the actor, and I am the one being met. If I'm "being" something by someone, I've become the object, so the correct pronoun to use would be me. It doesn't matter who gets to the store first. Once both of us are at the store, one of us is selected to be the actor and the other is the one being acted upon.
Anything for the Clause
So between who and whom, which would you use? In the examples above, it depends on what you are substituting for. Who met you at the store? He did. Whom did you meet at the store? I met him. It's who for subjects and whom for objects. Always.
Got it so far? Great! Now let's get a little fancier.
Whoever and whomever operate just like who and whom. The major difference is that whoever and whomever generally are found in clauses, which are like mini-sentences that cannot stand on their own.
Consider the following sentences:
1. I will go to the store with ________I choose.
2. I will go to the store with ________ wants to go with me.
Which word goes where, whoever or whomever?
If you said that whomever belongs in sentence 1, you are correct. Whomever is the object of the verb choose. Whom do i choose? I choose him. Okay, now what about the second sentence? In that one, whoever is the correct word. Who wants to go with me? He does. Whoever is the subject of the verb wants. Note that in neither case does the fact that we have the preposition with make any difference as to whether we use whoever or whomever. In both cases we have objects of prepositions, but in sentence 1, whomever gets the -m not because of the word with but because it's the object of choose.
I hope all of this helps. The best way to determine whether to use who or whom (or whoever or whomever) is to apply the simple rule. Try substituting he or him and you're not likely to go wrong. But it's also helpful to remember the difference between subjects and objects.