Who or whom? English grammar rules can be tricky, even for native English speakers. The word "whom" sounds too formal to most people who just want to chat about the day. At other times, people who want to sound formal can misuse and overuse the same word. Fortunately, there are some guidelines that can be considered when trying to apply the rules for using "who" and "whom."
Look for a preposition. Prepositions are words that describe how two things relate to one another. Examples include for, to, about, under, over, before, after and behind. Although there are exceptions in more complex sentence structures, the following rules will generally apply.
When the word is used after a preposition, use "whom." Examples include:
• He stands behind whom? • To whom it may concern…. • Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee (John Donne). • He told you to give the keys to whom?
When the word is used before the preposition, use "who." Examples include:
• Who stands behind whom? • Who will be concerned, and to whom will the message be addressed? • Who rings the bell, and for whom does it ring? • Who told you to give the keys to whom?
Look for objects and subjects. Generally, the word that comes before the preposition is the subject of the preposition, while the word that comes after the preposition is the object of the preposition. When the word is used as the subject, use "who." When the word is used as the object, use "whom."
"Who stands behind whom?" In this sentence: "who" is the subject; "behind" is the preposition; and "whom" is the object.
Look for the sentence's verb. Recognizing the verb is another way to determine the object and subject. A verb is a word that describes an action or the concept of being. The subject of the sentence will be the person who is doing the action. The object will be the person on whom, for whom or about whom the action is being taken.
Verbs include words such as the following: describe, jump, walk, run and stand.
"Who stands behind whom?" In this sentence: "who" is the subject;"stands" is the verb; "behind" is the preposition; and "whom" is the object. The word "who" comes before both the verb and the preposition. The word "whom" comes after both the verb and the preposition.
Try substitution words. Probably the simplest way to determine whether to use "who" or "whom" is by testing the sentence with another pronoun. "Who" can be substituted with "he," "she" or "they." "Whom" can be substituted with "him," "her" or "them."
"Who stands behind whom" can also be said as "He stands behind her" or "She stands behind him."
"Who told you to give the keys to whom" can also be said as "He told you to give the keys to her" or "She told you to give the keys to him."
"Who likes whom" can also be said as "She likes them"; "She likes him"; "He likes her"; and so on.
- Conversational English continues to evolve. Use of the word "whom" is less common than in the past in everyday conversations. The word "who" is generally accepted as a suitable replacement. From a writing perspective, however, it is important to consider the purpose and audience. In formal or professional writing, such as for school or publication, both "who" and "whom" should be properly used.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.