Saturday, July 2, 2011

Q & A When do we use 'whom' instead of 'who'.

I'm tempted to say almost never, but I'll try to be a bit more objective.
Basic answer - in spoken and informal English, most native speakers use whom very rarely. This is because for most of us whom sounds excessively formal and rather old fashioned.
Nowadays it is normally only used after prepositions, but we usually try to avoid doing even that by putting the preposition at the end of the clause or sentence whenever we can. This, however, isn't always possible, and in these instances using whom sounds perfectly natural. The trick is knowing what these appropriate whom moments are.
This has turned into quite a long post, and should be treated more like a dicussion than a lesson, especially as the subject can be a bit controversial. It certainly reflects my opinion, but my opinion is more or less in line with that of most TEFL books, and I think, of most linguists. But it is not in line with the opinion of those grammar traditionalists who only recognise the formal version as being correct.
A more detailed answer and a little grammar - In the TEFL world we say that whom is the object form of who; on grammar and linguistics websites they call it the objective (or accusative) case of who.
A common idea on some grammar websites is to say that if we can answer the question who? with the object forms him or her, then we should use whom instead of who. This sounds logical enough, but it largely ignores contemporary informal English usage. (But see the note on the substitution rule, below)
So let's look first at when we use who.
  • In direct questions
  • In wh- clauses, including indirect questions
  • In defining relative clauses
  • In non-defining relative clauses
And we are only interested in the object form: direct object, indirect object and after prepositions; the subject form is always who.

In direct questions as direct object

Which versions do you think sound more natural - whom or who?
  • Whom do you love? / Who do you love?
  • Whom did you first kiss? / Who did you first kiss?
  • Whom were you meeting earlier? / Who were you meeting earlier?
  • Whom have you seen recently? / Who have you seen recently?
I don't think I know anyone who would use whom in these circumstances. But some of those grammar websites say you should. And I even saw one comment that the Doors should have called their song 'Whom do you love'! I don't think their fans would have been too impressed. (And Grammar Girl makes the same comment about the Rolling Stones!)
Whom is not used very often in spoken English. Who is usually used as the object pronoun, especially in questions: Who did you invite to the party?
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

In direct questions as indirect object and with prepositions

Which versions do you think sound more natural - preposition + whom, or who with the preposition at the end?
  • To whom should I give this? / Who should I give this to?
  • With whom did have your first kiss? / Who did you have your first kiss with?
  • For whom did you buy this? / Who did you buy this for?
  • About whom is this book? / Who is this book about?
  • And by whom is it written? / And who is it written by?
Most people nowadays see To whom ... as very formal, With whom ... etc. even more so, not to say downright old-fashioned. In informal English we prefer to put the preposition at the end of the clause or sentence. And when I say informal English, I mean normal English. Most people use formal English very rarely.
And forget any 'rule' you've heard about not ending a sentence with a preposition. It's a load of old nonsense. In a possibly apocryphal story, Winston Churchill is said to have put paid to that one when he said something like:
  • That is something up with which I will not put.
There are some slightly different versions of the story, but in his book Plain Words, Sir Ernest Gowers used it to show how ridiculous this so-called rule was when, taking it to extremes, you tried to avoid using the much more natural:
  • That is something I will not put up with.
Incredible though it might seem, I have seen Churchill's sentence quoted on forums in support of this rule. Pedants are sometimes a bit slow at spotting irony.

Indirect questions and wh- clauses - direct object

We would normally say:
  • She asked me who I had invited to the party
  • I don't know who you know here, so I'll just introduce you to everyone.
whom would definitely sound very formal and stilted here

Indirect questions and wh- clauses - prepositions

And similarly with:
  • He asked me who I had just been talking to.
  • I wonder who you're thinking about.
where the use of whom would also sound very formal and unnatural.

Defining relative clauses - direct object

All the course books I've ever worked with give you the following options:
  • That's the man who I saw earlier.
  • That's the man that I saw earlier.
  • That's the man I saw earlier.
None of them suggest you should use whom. And as the last option, omitting the relative pronoun altogether, is probably the most popular, the question of whom doesn't even need to arise.
In defining relative clauses the object pronoun whom is not often used. You can either use who or that, or leave out the pronoun completely.
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

Defining relative clauses - indirect object and with prepositions

And we can also leave out the relative pronoun with prepositions:
  • This is the gentleman (who/that) I was telling you about.
  • There's the woman (who/that) I got the flowers from.
  • Here's the person (who/that) I gave the book to.
This is more more natural than:
  • This is the gentleman about whom I was telling you.
  • There's the woman from whom I got the flowers.
  • Here's the person to whom I gave the book.
And mixing the formal and informal styles seems distinctly odd:
  • This is the gentleman whom I was telling you about.
  • There's the woman whom I got the flowers from.
  • Here's the person whom I gave the book to.
Although I've seen so-called 'grammar' blogs and one of the quizzes in the links below, say you should.
But there are, admittedly, a few occasions when putting the preposition at the end of a defining relative clause sounds less natural than the more formal version.
  • The hotel is a non-smoking zone. People for whom this is a problem should think seriously before reserving a room.

Non-defining relative clauses - direct object

These are used more in written than spoken English, and there are occasions when whom is used, perhaps in more formal writing.
  • David Johnstone, who/whom I met while at university, was later to become a famous politician.
  • Peter Jackson, who/whom I taught to ski, ended up a much better skier than me.
But I still prefer the who versions, especially in the second sentence, where whom seems very stilted to me.

Non-defining relative clauses - prepositions.

  • Clara Dickinson, who I wrote to you about, is coming to stay with us.
  • Sandra Dickinson, who I bought that antiques book for, is no relation.
sound more natural than:
    about whom I wrote to you
  • for whom I bought that antiques book
But there are a few occasions when using whom is unavoidable

Non-defining relative clauses - quantifiers + of.

In a non-defining clause about people starting with 'all of', 'most of', 'many of', 'half of' etc., there is no other way than to use whom
  • The students, many of whom come from Spain, live with host families during their stay.
  • The Spanish students, most of whom were here for the first time, seemed to especially enjoy themselves.
  • Our host families, all of whom have teenage children themselves, provide a welcoming environment for the students
In fact whom sounds absolutely natural in this context, which is perhaps semi-formal, for example in a brochure.

Can you sum all that up in one sentence, please. When do I use whom?

After prepositions, but only when you have to, or in formal writing.


All my remarks on this page are connected with normal informal English – speaking, informal writing (like this, for example), letters, emails etc. But the people who run academic English courses can be a stuffy lot, and if you write academic essays, you will probably be expected to stick to the traditional rules – if it's him or her, it's whom etc., even though as The Free Dictionary says: the objective form who is now commonly used, even in formal writing (my emphasis)

A short note on whomever and whomsoever

Whomever is, logically enough, the object form of whoever.
  • You can invite whomever you like
  • I'll give my money to whomsoever I choose.
But as with who/whom, most of us would use whoever and whosoever here. (If we would ever use the word whosoever, that is!)
I have to confess that I didn't even know until quite recently that whomever and whomsoever existed, which perhaps shows you how often they are used.

A short note on the substitution rule – if it's him or her, it's whom.

This rule, used by the traditionalists and which I mentioned in the introduction, specifies that you should try substituting he/him or she/her for who/whom. If the answer is is he or she, it's who; if it's him or her it's whom.
As I said before, this rule largely ignores contemporary informal practice, but there is one area where it is useful if you do want to use whom or whomever, or when you have to use them, for example in academic writing.
Look at these sentences:
  • Do you know who/whom is coming to the party.
  • The newspapers disagree as to who/whom they think might win the election.
  • Give it to whoever/whomever needs it most.
You might think that who/whom(ever) is the object of the first verb in these sentences (or the preposition to in the second sentence). But overriding that is the need for the last verb in each sentence to have a subject.
In this case this rule is quite useful, because when we substitute personal pronouns, we get:
  • He or she is coming to the party.
  • He or she might win the election.
  • He or she needs it most.
So, who and whoever are correct in these sentences, and whom or whomever would be gramatically incorrect here, even to a traditionalist.

What the TEFL books and dictionaries etc., say.

Whom is not often used in informal English. ... In identifying relative clauses whom is rare ...
Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (Oxford)
Whom is not used very often in spoken English
Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary often considered stilted especially as an interrogative and especially in oral use
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
Many native speakers don't use whom and whomever
Focus on Grammar - Advanced (Longman)
The general opinion on whom is that "it is [already] virtually dead" (Aarts, 2004, p. 71) and will sooner or later disappear as it is just a relic of older times and therefore will die out.
I think this is yet another case of where TEFL grammar books are much more in touch with real grammar than some of the grammar teaching aimed at native speakers.

This use of who instead of whom is nothing new

Long ago, Shakespeare and other writers were using who for the object form, much as we do today. But in the 18th century some grammarians tried to 'clean up' English, taking Latin and Greek as their model, and many of the so-called rules strict grammarians preach today came from this period.
One of the problems with this approach is that Latin and Greek have strong case systems, which are almost non-existent in English – pronouns being the main exception – which perhaps explains why pronouns are one of the main areas of disagreement between descriptivists and prescriptivists.

The phenomenon of hypercorrection

Hypercorrection happens when someone uses an incorrect form because they mistakenly think it's more correct, usually because they have been told so often to use certain forms that they get confused, and worry about getting it 'wrong'.
One possible example of hypercorrection is – This is between you and I. The theory goes that people have been told so often by the 'grammar police' to use I and not me after the verb to be (even though most of us say me), that they think this should also be the case here. But between is a preposition, and traditionally the correct form to use after a preposition is the object form – me. For fear of getting it wrong they have 'hypercorrected'
I should perhaps add that there are many who consider 'between you and I' as being idiomatically correct, and that its use is not necessarily due to hypercorrection, but that is another story.
The same thing happens with whom, and apparently increasingly with whomever, which has been getting a new lease of life through this nonstandard use. In their usage section Merriam-Webster quote one common hypercorrection of who to whom
Whom shall I say is calling?
This is perhaps understandable. On the face of it, whom seems to be the object of shall I say. But more importantly the clause – is calling – needs a subject, and that subject is who. To see this more clearly, take away – shall I say – and you're left with – Whom is calling, which is obviously wrong. So the correct version is:
Who shall I say is calling?
For more about this type of sentence, see the note above about substitution. And of course if like most of us, you never use whom in the first place (except when we have to after prepositions), the problem doesn't arise.
The dictionary also points out that some people are now so unsure of themselves that they hedge their bets, quoting this sentence from a local newspaper:
... he was asked to step down, although it is not known exactly who or whom asked him

But didn't Hemingway call his novel 'For whom the bell tolls'? So surely that must be the correct usage.

The title of Hemingway's book 'For whom the bell tolls' comes from a short poem by English poet John Donne (1572 – 1631). The last three lines of the poem are:
  • Therefore, send not to know
  • For whom the bell tolls,
  • It tolls for thee.
I think you'll agree, that while being wonderful poetry, these three lines should not perhaps be taken as being the best guide to modern English conversational usage.

A little digression

It's strange, but almost everyone (including me before I wrote this post) thinks Donne wrote: 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls'. This poem, called 'For whom the bell tolls' is based on a longer work - Meditation XVII, but the phrase 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls' doesn't seem to appear in either. Perhaps it's because the phrase 'send not to know' sounds so strange to us we have subconsciously changed it to 'ask not'.
The word thee, by the way, is object form of the old 2nd person singular pronoun. Although it has been replaced by the 2nd person plural pronoun you in modern standard English, its use is common in Shakespeare and the Bible, and is still used in some dialects, for example in parts of Yorkshire. It was used in the lyrics of the song 'I predict a riot' by Leeds band the Kaiser Chiefs.
  • thou (subject)
  • thee (object)
  • thy (possessive adjective)
  • thine (possessive pronoun)

Related posts



Whom – the traditionalists (admittedly talking mainly about writing)

  • The University of Kansas Professor Malcolm Gibson writes for journalists, and advocates the traditional approach - if it's him or her it must be whom. But he has a very good section on the importance of the main verb having a subject.
  • Grammar Girl - Oh! You do disappoint me, Grammar Girl.

Who / whom / whoever / whomever quizzes – the formal way - beat the traditionalists at their own game!

For whom the bell tolls

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