The Mysterious Who vs. Whom . . . Isn’t!

Ann Baker is the manager of EDP (Editorial, Design, and Production) and it has taken her more than twenty years of professional copyediting to overcome her own personal fear of the semi-colon.

Raise your hand if you don’t know when to use who versus whom. Lots of hands out there. As most anyone will concede, over the last several decades whom has lost its clarity and thus its widespread use. One may find it buried deep in a lengthy monograph, say, but in most informal speech and writing “whom” almost never appears, even when grammar rules strictly require it. It seems “whom” has taken on something of an air of pompous snobbery and people go to great lengths and ridiculous verbal twists to avoid using it. Unnecessary anguish!

Let’s clear things up if we can, starting with a couple definitions. The words who and whoever are nominative (that is, they name the subject of a verb) and thus they only appear in the subjective case (as subjects or nouns). Conversely, whom and whomever are the objective case and are used only as direct or indirect objects of a verb.

There is a little-known but simple way to find out whether to use who vs. whom or whoever vs. whomever: First, isolate the clause. Then, delete the “who” or the “whom” from the sentence and insert either he or she or him or her (which may require inverting the word order). Presto! mystery solved: if he/she makes sense, substitute who; if him/her is correct, substitute whom. Truly, this is all you need to know: he/who, him/whom.

Follow along on this exercise:

Sam is the one who/whom will be hired. [he will be hired = subject = who]

Samantha is the one who/whom the employer will hire. [employer will hire her = object = whom]

The candidate who/whom smiles the most will be elected. [he smiles the most = subject who]

                Whoever/whomever submits the best proposal will get the award. [she will get the award = subject = whoever]

                Whoever/whomever we elect should have a commitment to pothole repair. [we will elect her = object = whomever]

As the Borzoi Handbook for Writers says, the question of who versus whom is determined by grammatical function, not by speech habits. Note the reason for choosing whom in these two examples:

                Whom did he marry?

Whom is the direct object of the verb did marry.

                Whom will you play against? or Against whom will you play?

Whom is the object of the preposition against.

But it can get complicated when the pronoun appears to be performing rival functions:

He will read his poems to [whoever/whomever] will listen.

The writer may want to choose whomever simply because it looks like the object of the preposition to (that is, to whomever will listen). But the real object of the preposition to is the whole clause following it, which thus stays in the subjective case: He will read his poems to whoever will listen.

The secret to correctly choosing between who and whom is to invert the sentence, regardless of whether it contains a single-word subject or a subjective clause. The mystery disappears with a simple check: he/who or him/whom?

-Ann Baker