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Choosing When to Use Who and Whom

The whole topic of pronouns is enough to give you a headache, but the time has come to put to rest one of the peskiest pronoun problems once and for all. (Get the skinny on pronouns in Pronoun Tips for Proper English Grammar.) The rule for knowing when to use who and whom is simple; applying the rule is not.

First, the rule:

  • Who and whoever are for subjects.
    Who and whoever also follow and complete the meaning of linking verbs. In grammarspeak, who and whoever serve as linking verb complements.
  • Whom and whomever are for objects — all kinds of objects (direct, indirect, of prepositions, of infinitives, and so on).

(If you need to refresh your parts-of-speech memory, head to English Grammar Basics: Parts of a Sentence.) Before applying the rule concerning who/whoever and whom/whomever, check out these sample sentences:

Whoever needs help from Lochness is going to wait a long time. (Whoever is the subject of the verb needs.)

Who is calling Lulu at this time of night? (Who is the subject of the verb is calling.)

"I don't care whom you ask to the prom," exclaimed Legghorn unconvincingly. (Whom is the direct object of the verb ask.)

The mustard-yellow belt is for whomever she designates as the hot dog eating champion. (Whomever is the direct object of the verb designates.)

For whom are you bellowing? (Whom is the object of the preposition for.)

Now that you know the rule and have seen the words in action, here are two tricks for deciding between who/whoever and whom/whomever. If one trick seems to work, use it and ignore the other. Here goes. . . .

Trick #1: Horse and carriage

According to an old song, "love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage." Grammarians might sing that song with slightly different lyrics: "A subject and verb go together like a horse and carriage." (What do you think? Grammy material?) To use Trick #1, follow these steps:

1. Find all the verbs in the sentence.

2. Don't separate the helping verbs from the main verb. Count the main verb and its helpers as a single verb.

3. Now pair each of the verbs with a subject.

4. If you have a verb flapping around with no subject, chances are who or whoever is the subject you're missing.

5. If all the verbs have subjects, check them one more time. Do you have any linking verbs without complements? If you have a lonely linking verb with no complement in sight, you need who or whoever.

A linking verb begins a word equation; it expresses a state of being, linking two ideas. You can think of linking verbs as giant equal signs plopped into the middle of your sentence. The complement completes the equation. (Linking Verbs versus Action Verbs can help if you’re confused about these different types of verbs.)

6. If all subjects are accounted for and you don't need a linking verb complement, you've reached a final answer: whom or whomever is the only possibility.

Here's a sample sentence, analyzed via Trick #1:

SENTENCE: Who/Whom shall I say is calling?

The verbs = shall say, is calling.

The subject of shall say = I.

The subject of is calling = Okay, here you go. You need a subject for is calling but you're out of words. You have only one choice: who.

CORRECT SENTENCE: Who shall I say is calling?

Pop quiz

Now you try: Which word is correct?

Agnes buys detergent in one-ton boxes for Lochness, who/whom she adores in spite of his odor problem.

Answer: Whom, because it's the direct object of adores. Agnes buys, she adores = subject–verb pairs. Both are action verbs, so no subject complement is needed.

Trick #2: Getting rhythm

This trick relies on your ear for grammar. Most English sentences follow one pattern: Subject–Verb–Object or Subject Complement. Trick #2 is to say the parts of the sentence in this order, even if you have to rearrange the words a little. Here are the steps to follow:

1. Identify the verb in the sentence that seems connected to the who/whom choice. Usually it's the verb nearest who/whom. It's also the verb logically connected by meaning — that is, in the same thought as who/whom.

2. Say (aloud, if you don't mind scaring your classmates or co-workers, or silently, if you plan to keep a reputation for sanity) the three parts of the sentence.

Anything before the verb is who or whoever.

If you're working with an action verb, anything after the verb is probably whom or whomever.

If you're working with a linking verb, anything after the verb is probably who or whoever.

Here is a sample sentence analyzed with Trick #2:

Who/Whom will Lochness choose for the vacancy in his nuclear spy ring?

The verb is will choose.

Will choose is an action verb, so forget about linking verb complements.

Say aloud: Lochness will choose who/whom.

Choice = whom because the word is after the verb.

Whom = direct object of will choose.

CORRECT SENTENCE: Whom will Lochness choose for the vacancy in his nuclear spy ring?

Pop quiz

Which word is correct?

Who/Whom do you like better, Lochness or Legghorn?

Answer: Whom is correct. Change the order of the words to you do like whom. Choose whom after an action verb. In this sentence, whom is the direct object. (By the way, the answer is Legghorn, no contest. He's much nicer than Lochness.)

See also:

English Grammar Tips for Subject-Verb Agreement
Living Better with Better Grammar
How to Locate the Verb in a Sentence

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