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I must admit, every time I use the word whom, I feel a bit uneasy.

Though I’m uncomfortable using bad grammar — and I know stickers would bristle at an incorrect who — sometimes whom just sounds pompous. Like a 19th century English butler.

Let’s explore proper usage of who vs whom, then consider whether there are cases where we might justifiably depart from the excruciatingly correct.

Who vs Whom

In theory, it’s very simple. Both who and whom are pronouns. Use who when referring to the subject (i.e. the person doing or giving something to someone) and whom when referring to the object (i.e. the person who receives something).

If “Bob gave the money to Jack”, then Bob is the subject and Jack is the object. Therefore, we ask, “Who gave the money to whom”. That is:

  • Who gave the money to Jack?
  • Bob gave to the money to whom? (Or, phrased differently, “To whom did Bob give the money?”)

The confusion arises because sometimes, especially in more complicated sentences, it’s hard to tell subject from object.

A (Not So) Secret Trick

Luckily, there’s really easy way to tell which is correct. Pretend both the subject and object are men. Then ask yourself whether the answer to the question would be he or him.

  • If the answer is he, you should use who.
  • If the answer is him, then you should (in theory, at least) use whom.

You can remember this, because both whom and him end with an m. (That’s why you have to pretend they’re all men. “Her” ends with an r, so the trick doesn’t work.)

So for example:

“Who/whom do you wish to see?” The answer would be, “I wish to see him“, not “I wish to see he“. So you should use whom.

“Who/whom is going to the store?” The answer would be, “He is going to the store”, not “Him is going to the store.” So you should use who.

But Still…

Sometimes – even most times – whom just sounds wrong. Especially when used at the very beginning of a sentence, like:

  • Whom do you love?
  • Whom are you trying to kid?

In speech, almost nobody would use whom like this. And even in formal writing, it sounds pompous and wrong. So I for one don’t use it.

If whom ever sounds “right”, it’s when it comes directly after a preposition. For example:

  • He gave the money to whom? (Or just, “To whom?)
  • For whom are you working? (Or just, “For whom?”)

And that’s about the only time I use whom: directly after a preposition. Unless, of course, my audience consists mainly of English butlers…

Thoughts, anyone?