Tag Archive - who and whom

A Helpful Way to Determine When Not to Use “Whom”

In another blog post we looked at the phrase “Whom shall I say is calling?” and learned that such use of whom is incorrect. The trick to knowing whether to use whom or who in these instances is to remove the subject-verb combination that immediately follows the pronoun. Don’t say “huh?” Let me show you.

With that famous phase, when you delete those words I mentioned (“shall I say”), you would get this:

  • “Whom is calling?”

You can always replace whom with him (object) or who with he (subject) to check if you are correct. Saying “him is calling” is not correct.

Watch what happens when I take out the subject-verb words in these sentences:

  • The police have captured the man whom they think robbed the bank.
  • The client hired the accountant whom she remembered was helpful.
  • He didn’t want to invite the woman, whom his friend had said was a bore.

Clearly, whom is wrong in these instances. That’s because the pronoun (whom) connects to the action of that person (robbed, not think, in the first example), not the action of the subject of the sentence (I tried to explain this in as simple a way as I can here, without getting too grammar techy). “The man … robbed the bank.” In other words, “He” robbed the bank (subject), not “him.”

What helps me in these cases is to group those words together in my head:

  • The man who robbed the bank.
  • The accountant who was helpful.
  • The woman who was a bore.

I hope this helps you understand whom better. I’ve been studying the advice of the grammar instructors who I feel know what they are talking about!


Whom Should You Say?

No one, that’s who! Maybe it sounds correct because you can picture someone prim and proper uttering these words, but to say “whom shall I say is calling” is grammatically incorrect. Although I did a post last year about who and whom, since I struggle with this, I’m sure others do to. I have to run through some mental gymnastics on occasion to remind myself when to use who and whom.

It’s fairly straightforward. Who is for subjects and whom  is for objects. You can replace who with a subject like I, you, or he. And you can replace whom with objective pronouns like me and him. Here are some correct examples for reference:

  • Who made the birthday cake?
  • Who is in the kitchen?
  • Who is going to do the dishes?
  • Whom are you going to invite?
  • Whom did he blame for the accident?
  • Whom did he hire to do the job?
  • He doesn’t know who the boss is
  • She doesn’t care whom you invite
  • The man who called you is coming (simplify to “he is coming”)
  • You saw the woman whom you had spoken to (more succinct to leave out the whom)

More often than not, writers hypercorrect and use whom when they should just use who. Sometimes, though, it’s just simpler and easier to rewrite.

Whom Shall I Say?

If you’re like me, you get who and whom  mixed up. I often have to stop and reword the sentence in my head to check which one I need. We’ve been told that who is the subject of a clause and whom takes an objective position. In other words, we use whom when he or she is the object of a sentence, as in for whom, to whom, with whom.

I like how Amy Einsohn explains this in her great book The Copy Editor’s Handbook, which I’m happy to plug here. These are the (correct) examples she gives:

  • Joseph is the candidate whom we hope to elect. [We hope to elect him—object, not subject, of the sentence]
  • Smith is the candidate who we think will win. [We think he will win—he being in the nominal, not objective, form]
  • This book offers advice to whoever will accept it. [Who will accept it? He will, not him will—so you use the nominal form]

Amy’s book is really terrific at explaining everything you need to know about writing correctly, and you can get her book here:

The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, Second Edition