Grammar: who and whom

Languages change all the time and it may be that English is changing more rapidly than other languages because it’s so widely used around the world. You only have to think of the vast growth of words related to computers over the last 20 years to see clear evidence of rapid change.

However, grammatical words change far less rapidly. There is change, but it is very slow so words like he, she, can, will, must, under, always and so on hardly change at all. Nevertheless, there is change and, for example, the use of words like whom and shall has declined steadily for many years. The possibility is that whom will have disappeared completely by some point in the not-too-distant future because it seems over-formal and old-fashioned to many people.

Understanding how to use whom means that we have to understand a little bit about subjects and objects in sentences.

The subject of a sentence is the central topic of the sentence, as in these examples:

  • The driver rushed across the road.
  • Those old cars are worth a lot of money.
  • London is a modern city.
  • They‘ve all passed with excellent results.
  • Smoking is a bad habit.

The object of a sentence generally tells us more about what the subject did; these are direct objects:

  • Anna sold the old car.
  • The old farmer kicked the rusty bucket.
  • His father decided to buy the old farm.

There are also indirect objects, and these tend to be recipients of objects or actions.

  • He gave his wife a box of chocolates.
  • The young man sent the beautiful girl a golden necklace.

Back to who and whom! We use who for the subject of a sentence, and whom for the object of the sentence. Consider this sentence:

  • The police officer hit the thief.
    • Subject = The police officer
    • Direct object = the thief
    • Who hit the thief?
    • Whom did the policeman hit?
  • The old woman gave the child a bar of chocolate.
    • Subject = The old woman
    • Indirect object = the child
    • Direct object = a bar of chocolate
    • Who gave the girl a bar of chocolate?
    • Whom did she give the chocolate to?
    • (or: To whom did she give the chocolate?)
  • Mary will send the reward to the man who found her wallet.
    • Who will give the reward?
    • Whom will Mary give the reward to?

Although these examples may be clear, it might be helpful to have some sort of guideline to check which word is correct.

When you are unsure what word to use, try replacing the word who or whom with he or him. When the answer is he, we need who. When the answer is him, we need whom. If we use the examples above, we could do the following:

  • Who hit the thief? He hit the thief, or Him hit the thief. He is correct so we need who.
  • Whom did the policeman hit? The policeman hit him, or the policeman hit he. Him is correct so whom is used.
  • Who gave the girl a bar of chocolate? He gave the girl the chocolate or Him gave the girl the chocolate. He is correct so who is used.
  • Whom did she give the chocolate to? To he, or to him. Him is correct so we use whom.
  • Who will give the reward? He will give … or him will give …?

Here are some more examples:

  1. He’s the one who got distinction in his exams. (He got distinction.)
  2. Emerson is the dentist whom I go to once a month. (I go to him.)
  3. My mum talked to the fisherman whom she met in Grimsby. (She met him in Grimsby.)
  4. To whom could the worried people turn? (Could they turn to him?)
  5. The cheering crowds disagreed about who might win. (They thought he might win.)

The same rules apply for the use of whoever and whomever. So, are these correct?

Look at these sentences. Are they correct?

  1. Mary is the woman whom I met at the party.
  2. We’ll give the award to the one who tried hardest.
  3. John talked to the doctor whom he met in Brighton.
  4. That is the girl who got the job that I wanted.
  5. We’re pleased with the woman who has been appointed.
  6. It was our local police chief who was elected to parliament.
  7. She was asked to check on who came late.
  8. We wanted to know whom she had talked to.
  9. I decided to go with whoever asked me first.
  10. The award goes to whomever gets the most votes.

Note on the exercise: they are all correct!