Knowing When to Use Who and Whom

Even native English speakers have trouble knowing when to use who versus whom. These words are pronouns. Who is the subject pronoun and whom is the object pronoun. 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).

Before applying the rule concerning who/whoever and whom/whomever, check out these sample sentences:

Whoever needs help from Roger 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 Michael 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 is a trick for deciding between who/whoever and whom/whomever.

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? (For more information on complements, see Chapter 6.) If you have a lonely linking verb with no complement in sight, you need who or whoever.

  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 are two sample sentences, analyzed via this trick:

Sentence one: 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?
Sentence two: Derek is the ballplayer who/whom everyone thinks plays best.
The verbs = is, thinks, plays.
The subject of is = Derek.
The subject of thinks = everyone
The subject of plays = Um. . . m. Once again, a subject shortage occurs. Therefore, you need who.
Correct sentence: Derek is the ballplayer who everyone thinks plays best.

Now you try. Which word is correct?

Agnes buys detergent in one-ton boxes for Roger, 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. Therefore, you need an objective pronoun, whom.

Play it again, Sam. Which word is correct?

Anna solves math problems for whoever/whomever heads the Olympic Math Team.

Answer: Whoever. Surprised? The preposition for needs an object, so you might have assumed that whomever fills that spot. But use the horse-and-carriage method, and you'll see why whoever is best. The sentence has two verbs, solves and heads. Anna is the subject of solves. What's the subject of heads? It has to be whoever. The real object of the preposition for is the entire subject-verb statement: whoever heads the Olympic Math Team.

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