Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Last week I posted about hypercorrection, and as an example I pointed to people's tendency to use "so-and-so and I" in every situation, even where it isn't warranted. I mentioned then that I wouldn't get into "who" and "whom" at that time, mostly because I thought everyone would be bored to death, despite the urgency of a much-needed corrective. But I had a few people ask me about how to know which is appropriate when, so here are my thoughts on the matter.

It's unfortunate that people have become so misinformed about who and whom. It's not hard to locate examples of hypercorrection in this area. Eavesdrop at any formal function, one where people feel out of place and stuffy, and chances are you'll hear the incorrect usage of whom. Why? Because whom doesn't come naturally to us. Grammar teaching is lax in the school (I have my own thoughts on this touchy subject, best relegated to the vault), and most people don't use it at all. Because of this, it's easy to assume "whom" is a dressier word, meant to be used on formal occasions, a tuxedo to who's jeans and T-shirt. But in truth, both who and whom are everyday words. They signify grammatical relationships, not the ambience of the occasion.

"Who" and "whom" follow a pattern similar to "I" and "me," but the pattern can be more difficult to spot because it can involve reworking the sentence (especially in interrogatives). Let's take a look at a few examples:
  1. Who are these flowers for?
  2. Who is that man eating candy over there?
  3. These pamphlets are for whoever wants one.
  4. I'm saving these seats for whoever.
  5. My friend is the Captain, who sailed all over the world.
  6. My friend is the Captain, who I would do anything for.
I used "who" in each situation to avoid bias. So which sentences is "who" correct in? Take a moment and think about it...

...Done yet? Take your time.

...Okay. "Who" (or "whoever," as the case may be) is correct in 2, 3, and 5. "Who" should be "whom" in 1, 4, and 6. Why is this?

Well, the first (and easiest) test is to replace the interrogative who/whom with he/him. Which would be appropriate? As I mentioned before, this may involve some rearranging of the sentence. Let's take a look at 1:
  • Who are these flowers for?
  • These flowers are for he.
  • These flowers are for him.
In this example, we wouldn't say, "These flowers are for he" (unless we are too far gone down the road of hypercorrection); we would say, "These flowers are for him." In this instance, "whom" is appropriate: "Whom are these flowers for?" Or, if you are a traditional prescriptivist grammarian, you might insist on, "For whom are these flowers?" (I won't get into my thoughts on this today.)

Example 2 yields a different result:
  • Who is that man eating candy over there?
  • He is that man eating candy over there.
  • Him is that man eating candy over there.
Unless you are Bizarro, you can recognize that "he" is the obvious choice for which rewrite is correct. You'll also notice that to replace the interrogative with "he" doesn't require much, if any, rewriting, whereas replacing it with "him" does. This will typically be the case. If you can't force the sentence make sense as-is, you may need to use "whom." But this is not a foolproof way to test the sentence: some poetic or awkward speech plays with word order in a way that is not common in everyday speech. It's safer to work in terms of subjects and objects, if possible, which is what we've been doing above. We use he when he is the subject of the sentence: "He goes to school." (He does the going.) We use him when he is the object of the sentence: "The school practically worships him." (The worshiping is done to him.)

This works in examples 1 and 2, which are simpler sentences. What about examples 3 and 4? In these, we are using "whoever" and "whomever." I'll be honest: this one's a little trickier, and I've seen this one messed up quite a bit. The instances I pointed out are tricky. Let's look at each in turn.

"These pamphlets are for whoever wants one." It seems like this should be "whomever." After all, it comes after a preposition, "for": in the flowers example above, we used "whom." Shouldn't we use it again here? But here is where this example goes awry. It's correct that, typically, after a preposition we use the objective case. But here the object is a clause (that is, it itself has the elements of a sentence: subject, verb, object) and not the word "whoever." "Whoever wants one" isn't an interesting sentence, and it requires more information, but it is a clause. The "whoever" isn't an object by itself, but it's part of a larger element, and within that larger element, "whoever" is the subject. If we look at the clause in isolation, we can use the test above:
  • Whoever wants one.
  • He wants one.
  • Him wants one.
When we look at it this way, it's obvious, right? It's much harder when it's part of the greater sentence. In this case, even though "whoever" follows a preposition, it is a subject in a clause, so it remains "whoever" without that pesky m.

But what about the next example: "I'm saving these seats for whoever"? Here "whoever" should be "whomever." It is not the subject of an imbedded clause; it stands by itself. And as such, it, alone, is an object. "I'm saving these seats for whomever."

I won't spend much time on the last two examples because I've already discussed the principles necessary to figure them out. In sentence 5, "who sailed all over the world" is a relative clause, that is, it has all the elements of a clause, but it's specifically tied (relative) to a word in the greater sentence. (In this case, "who" refers to the Captain.) We could rewrite this relative clause as "The Captain sailed all over the world," or, for our purposes today, "He sailed all over the world"--who. The second sentence is the same: "I would do anything for the Captain," or, "I would do anything for him"--whom.

I hope this is helpful. Who and whom is tricky, but you can figure it out. My word of advice, though, for what it's worth, is if you think you might mess it up, use "who" in all situations. "Whom" is on the decline, and most people won't bat an eye if you use "who" where "whom" would be more correct (and those who would look down on you are not your friends). But hypercorrecting "who" to "whom" is grating, easier to spot, and a lot more embarrassing. It's like putting lipstick on a pig.


  1. I'm glad to know this post was written in response to requests for clarification; as you point out above, correcting people's grammar unbidden is somewhat gauche. Doing so at their request is magnanimous.

    Your suggestion to replace with 'he' or 'him' is helpful, but it could potentially lead to further misunderstanding due to the widespread tendency to use objective cases after linking verbs. For instance, to most ears "That man eating candy over there is him" seems more correct than "That man eating candy over there is he."
    Beware the linking verb.

  2. Thanks for calling me "magnanimous," no matter how tongue-in-cheek. :-)

    That's a good point about linking verbs, and something to watch out for. I still think the "he/him" rule of thumb is helpful, but you're right: it isn't everything. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I always use the he/him trick to figure out whether who/whom is appropriate.... but I still got number 3 wrong in your test. So embarrassing. Perhaps I'm due for a grammar refresher course.

    Thanks for writing out this explanation. It's quite articulate. I may forward it to my cousin, who frequently asks me to proof his papers for school.

  4. This was well done. Thanks for writing this.

  5. @Brittany--It's okay. I have to diagram sentences sometimes to figure it out. It's certainly not second nature.

    @Socrates43--Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. Sometimes I still hear the voice of Dr. Davis as I work through these questions at my job. And I remember and appreciate the obscure and difficult examples you brought up in class. :-)

  6. There is a reason I avoid English classes at all costs ... it just doesn't sounds ridiculous to me! Thanks for the post though :) it was kinda entertaining.

  7. Thanks for the refresher. I remember the basics, but forgot/didn't know about the subject of a clause one.

  8. In defense of the layman, it is pretty difficult to go through the "he/him" test in the middle of a verbal conversation. I imagine someone pausing every few seconds to figure out what to say next and it sounding way more ridiculous than misusing "whom."

    Also, at what point does the common usage take over and the pointlessly cumbersome rules of grammar change?

  9. I agree: I advocate "who" in all oral cases. What prompted a reposting was written usage. Again, using "who" in all cases is preferable to the wrong use of whom, in my opinion.

    You've tipped your hand in calling them "the pointlessly cumbersome rules of grammar." The rules of grammar are guides to show proper relationships in English. They are meant to ensure clarity.