Each week, we chat about the quirks & anomalies of the English language. And sometimes that means discussing why we disobey the rules because it just sounds better…
Q: Hello. I need to know about “who” and “whom”. I’ve heard conflicting opinions.
A: From whom have you heard that?
Q: Ahhhh, okay, I see what you did there.
A: “Who” relates to the subject of a sentence – the person or thing that is doing something. Meanwhile, “whom” relates to the person or thing that is having something done to them – the object.
A: If we said “The king fired the jester for not being funny,” then the king is doing the firing (subject) and the jester is getting fired (object).
Q: But surely the king has many subjects…
A: Haha. So, a nice rule is to replace “who” or “whom” with the third person pronoun. If this gives you a subject (he, she, it, they), “who” is correct. If you get an object (him, her, them), it’s “whom”. Asking “Whom did the king fire?” is correct as it yields “him”. “Who fired the jester?” is correct for the opposite reason.
Q: So should it be “who is coming to my party?” but “from whom shall I buy my cake?”
A: Yes. “Whom” is often preceded by a preposition such us “from”, “to”, etc.
Q: It’s all rather stuffy isn’t it?
A: Indeed. After all, when was the last time you uttered such a sentence?
Q: I went for a Hamlet audition last week.
A: Precisely. It just feels wrong.
Q: That’s what the director told me too…
A: Earlier, we asked “From whom have you heard that?” when it would be far more natural asking “Who have you heard that from?”
Q: Umm. So we’re quite literally back at the beginning. Which one do I use then?
A: Most people today opt to use “who” in place of “whom” for almost everything. And that’s okay.
Q: I hate this language.
A: English is evolving. Many still say it’s NOT okay, but they’re clinging to a crumbling rule. We say it’s still important to know when “whom” is being used in the right place, even if you don’t use it yourself.
Q: I guess so. So “who” is the subject – it’s actually doing the thing, while “whom” is the object – has something done to it. E.g. “Who saw you?” and “Whom did you see?”
A: Yes good summary – and great examples.
Q: So what about Dr Who?
A: What about him?
Q: Shouldn’t it be “Dr Whom”, because lots of stuff always happens to him?
A: Ummm no.
Q: Well, shouldn’t Ghostbusters have been asking “Whom ya gonna call?”
A: Haha, okay, you got us there. But sometimes, especially in things like movies or song lyrics, you need to go with the popular register – what sounds most natural. That’s why “whom” is dying out.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you can use “who” in place of “whom” for almost everything – what are the exceptions?
A: Besides the entrenched “To whom it may concern” phrase, Oxford Dictionaries also points out that when preceded by a quantifier such as “all of”, “both of”, “few of”, “many of” or “several of”, using “whom” is still preferred. E.g. “The women, both of whom were residents of the town…”
Q: Okay then. But for everything else, know the rule, but don’t sound like a tool.
A: That’s right. Because using “whom” incorrectly is far worse than using it correctly!