The Difference Between Who and Whom

People are always asking me about the difference between “who” and “whom”. Okay, strictly speaking, that’s not true. No one has ever asked me about the difference between “who” and “whom” because I’m a miserable shut-in and most of my friends are talented writers that don’t need my advice, but that’s beside the point. The point is that there are plenty of people in the world that want to know when they should use the word “whom” and the answer is actually pretty simple—you should never use the word “whom”.

“Whom” is an ugly, vestigial word that belongs in the bin alongside “wherefor”, “thus”, and all the other old-fashioned formalities. The technical purpose of “whom” is to delineate between a subject and object of a sentence. For example:

Dr. Tomorrow is the one who built the space laser.

Versus:

Dr. Tomorrow is a mad scientist whom I have vowed to bring to justice.

In the first sentence “who” refers to “Dr. Tomorrow” as the subject of the sentence and in the second sentence “whom” refers to him as an object. You can figure this out by diagramming the sentence if you’re the type of person that likes sentence diagramming, Microsoft Excel, and plain cheese pizza, but for everyone that isn’t a complete grammar nerd the much easier way of figuring out when to use “who” and when to use “whom” is to substitute “he/him” or “she/her” and see what makes sense.

Let’s take the second sentence. If we wrote:

I have vowed to bring he to justice.

The sentence makes no sense and sounds a bit silly. However, if we use “him” we get a much more sensible sentence:

I have vowed to bring him to justice.

This works every time. If you could use “he” or “she” and the sentence still makes sense, use “who”, but if you would need to use “him/her” you would use “whom”. Or you could ignore the prescriptive grammar thugs altogether and use something a bit closer to modern speech:

Dr. Tomorrow is a mad scientist I have vowed to bring to justice.

There really is no need for “whom” and all it does is make the sentence sound unnecessarily formal. It can be useful stylistically, like if you’re trying to sound like a bargain-bin Stan Lee, but its general lack of use in everyday parlance means that it almost always sounds very artificial:

To whom it may concern…

For whom the bell tolls….

This can be especially important for fiction writers. Clarity and precision of language are always important, but if you write dialogue like this:

“Whom can we call to come to our aid?”

Things start sounding overwritten and unnatural very quickly.

Frankly, there’s just no good reason to use “whom” unless you’re trying to be the sort of pretentious person that uses their knowledge over obscure and archaic rules of English grammar to cover for the fact that they don’t have any interesting ideas.

Next week: More obscure and archaic rules of English grammar!

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