Who/Whom and Whoever

This Rule Should Be Easy

who-whomJust as the “I/me” confusion sometimes causes speakers to overcompensate and use “I” even when “me” is called for, so also do speakers, in an effort to sound knowledgeable, use “whom” at times when “who” is the right choice. This should be easy:

  • Who” is like “I.” It is the nominative form of a pronoun — a relative pronoun or an interrogative pronoun — used for subjects and predicate nouns/pronouns:

    Relative pronoun: The spy who came in from the cold wrote a book.
    Interrogative pronoun: Who was that masked man?

  • Whom” is like “me.” It is the accusative or objective form of a pronoun, used for objects of verbs and prepositions.

    Relative pronoun: The person whom I most admire is Ghandi.
    Interrogative pronoun: Whom do you most admire?

The only tricky part is correctly diagnosing a nominative use or an objective use.

  • First: “Who” and “Whom” introduce what are called “relative clauses.” That is why they are called “relative pronouns.” A relative clause is a subordinate clause: it cannot stand alone, but requires being linked to an independent clause in order to make sense. “Who” and “whomrelate the content of their clause to a specific person in the independent clause. They serve to identify persons in the same way that the relative pronoun “which” identifies things. But the nominative form of “which” is the same as the objective form, so there’s no problem of choice.
  • Second: “Who” and “whom” are also “interrogative pronouns” when used in questions. The rules are the same, whether they are used to relate clauses to nouns or pronouns, or whether they are used to form questions.
  • "Never send to know For whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." -- Donne
    “Never send to know
    For whom the bell tolls;
    It tolls for thee.” — Donne

    Third: If the person in the independent clause who is being described by the “who” or “whom” is the subject or a predicate noun, then “who” is correct. If it is an object (either of the clause or of a preposition), then “whom” is correct. Test this by answering the “who/whom” question (or completing the “who/whom” statement) with “he” or “she“: If “he” or “she” is correct, then “who” is your answer. If it turns out that “him” or “her” is correct, then “whom” is your answer. Example: “For who/whom the bell tolls.” Answer: It tolls for him. OK: Use “whom.”

  • Fourth: If the “who/whom” question arises as the object of a preposition, “whom” is always the right choice. But be careful: If the object of the preposition is some other noun or pronoun, and the “who/whom” element is the subject of a clause that describes that object, then “who” is the correct choice. That is because “who” (in that case) is not the object of the preposition (some other noun or pronoun is), but rather, it is the subject of its own clause. Examples: I gave the gifts to whom I wished; I gave the gifts to those who asked for them.
  • Fifth: The very same rules apply to “whoever” and “whomever.” Examples: “Invite whomever you wish.” (“whomever” is the object of the verb “invite“); “Whoever arrives first will win the door prize.”  (“whoever” is the subject of the verb “arrives”).

Relative clauses are either restrictive or non-restrictive:
corsageRestrictive clauses provide enough additional information so that the hearer or reader can know precisely to whom the speaker or writer is referring. (They “restrict” or “narrow down” the possibilities to the precise one.) They are not set off with commas. Example: Take a picture of the woman who is wearing a corsage. (No comma)

Non-restrictive clauses are not necessary to identify who it is that we are discussing. They just provide extra information. They are set off with commas. Example: Take a picture of Mrs. Maxwell, who is wearing a corsage. (Comma required)

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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