Denise M Taylor

Writing Consultant I Editor I Proofreader I Teacher

These days, the use of the pronoun ‘whom’ in our speech and writing is becoming less common —quite frankly, it’s on its last legs. Grammar purists will be shaking their heads and wringing their ink-stained hands as they ponder the demise of ‘whom’ and the rise in popularity of the less pretentious pronoun, ‘who’. However, if you’re writing or speaking in a formal situation then you may want to find out when ‘whom’ should be used . . .

The word ‘who’ is a pronoun that can only be the subject of a verb (and the sentence in most cases).

 Who painted that?

 who is the subject of the verb painted.

 The children ran to see who was talking.

 who is the subject of the verb talking.

On the other hand, the word ‘whom’ is never the subject of a verb, but it serves as the object of a verb or preposition (to, of, near, with, by, on, in).

 Ted gave the paintings to the students, all of whom were delighted.

 Both ‘who’ and ‘whom’ refer to a person or people mentioned previously in the sentence, and are usually followed by a relative clause that gives more information about that person or those people. Relative clauses are categorised as either restrictive or non-restrictive (explained in my ‘that’/‘which’ post). Here’s an example of a restrictive relative clause, marked in bold:

I was determined to find Patrick whom I wanted to interview.

The clause gives essential information about the person and the sentence would not make sense without it. Even though ‘who’ is more commonly used in spoken English, ‘whom’ is the correct pronoun to use because it appears in the object position of the verb ‘interview’ (I was determined to interview him).

The choice of ‘who’ or ‘whom’ in non-restrictive relative clauses depends on the rest of the clause. Here are two examples, with the relative clauses marked in bold:

The boy, who is identified as the person in the photograph, has disappeared.

 Amy Black, whom you met two years ago, will be your tour guide.

In the first sentence, ‘the boy’ is the subject of the sentence and of the verb ‘identified’ in the relative clause, so ‘who’ is the correct pronoun. Although ‘Amy Black’ is the overall subject of the second sentence, she is also the object of the verb ‘met’ in the relative clause, so ‘whom’ is (strictly) correct here, though (again) many people would use ‘who’ in conversation as it sounds less stuffy.

Who-460x295

Some writers and editors still follow these ‘who/whom’ grammar rules slavishly, but they (the rules, not the people!) are on the wane in our increasingly informal society—in fact there are many who never use ‘whom’ at all. This can be a dilemma for the editor and proofreader; however, in my opinion, an editor should aim to maintain the author’s style and ‘voice’. Recently, I was editing an article and this cropped up (the name has been changed):

This argument has its origins in the opinions of Ted Smith, who I respect.

 Ted is the object of the verb ‘respect’ so the correct word here is ‘whom’ not ‘who’. I corrected it because it was an academic long essay.

However, I probably wouldn’t correct an informal book dedication such as:

 I dedicate this book to Ted Smith, who I consider my greatest inspiration.

 Although I’d be tempted to suggest changing it to:

 I dedicate this book to Ted Smith who is my greatest inspiration.

I searched my copy of  ‘A Passage to India’ (1924; E. M. Forster) and found this fine example of the use of ‘whom’ in a sentence:

 . . . Mohammed Latif embraced her with efficiency and respect, and by his side sat Fielding, whom he began to think of as ‘Cyril’. (Chapter XVI)

Too much to absorb? The easiest way to work out the subjects and objects of sentences (and clauses) is to find the verbs and then identify who or what is doing the action (the subject). Next, check if there is an object: not all verbs have objects, but if they do, it’s the person or thing that is affected by action of the verb.

Here’s a douzy:

Tell me, whom do you agree with?

 whom is used here because it ‘follows’ the preposition with (it doesn’t matter if the preposition is not immediately before whom). This question could also be written: With whom do you agree?

Most would be less formal and say:

 Come on, who do you agree with?

 Indeed . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply