There are many facets of language that one must understand to truly master the English language. One of these is grasping the appropriate use of pronouns, and a case in point is who vs. whom. For example, is it “Who can I trust?” or “Whom can I trust?”
“Whom can I trust?” is formally accurate, yet both are informally acceptable. In formal grammar, the correct choice would be “whom” because we use the pronoun “who” to refer to the subject of a sentence while “whom” refers to the object of a verb or preposition. However, in modern usage, “whom” is rapidly falling away in favor of generically using “who.”
In this article, we’ll explore pronouns in general and “who” or “whom” in particular. We’ll also examine the use of “who” and “whom” in various contexts and give you some tools for knowing which one to choose.
10 Main Types of Pronouns
We use pronouns in place of nouns or noun phrases to make speech and writing flow better and to avoid repetition (source). There are 10 main types of pronouns, which we summarize in the table below.
Refers to unspecified person, thing, or place.
|One, all, both, each, everybody, etc.||One has to be careful of that dog.|
Substitutes for a person; can be objective or subjective
|Subjective: he, she, they, etc.Objective: him, her, me, etc.||He is a very kind boy.Jane invited him to the dance.|
Applies when the object of the sentence is also the subject.
|Myself, himself, herself, etc.||They bought themselves a sandwich at the airport.|
Introduces a question
|Who, whom, what, whose, etc.||Who is sitting in the car?|
Introduces a relative clause
|Who, whom, which, etc.||My teacher, who I dislike, is in the restaurant.|
|His, hers, mine, ours, theirs, etc.||The book is hers, not yours.|
Points to something specific in the sentence
|This, that, these, neither, etc.||This was her favorite city in Europe.|
Points to a mutual set of people
|Eachother, one another, etc.||We must all help one another to overcome this challenge.|
Refers to a person, place, or thing one at a time
|Neither, either, each||I believe neither of the men is guilty.|
Who or Whom?
As you will see from the table, the pronouns “who” and “whom” can be either relative or interrogative depending on how we use them in a sentence. However, they are both pronouns that refer only to people — or in some exceptional circumstances, to pets.
In the case of our title sentence, the pronoun is an interrogative one.
We use interrogative pronouns to ask questions. They include who, whom, which, what, and whose (source). Below are some examples using each of these pronouns.
- Who went to the show yesterday?
- Whom did you speak to?
- Which sweater do you prefer?
- What is your favorite color?
- Whose book is that?
“Who” as Interrogative Pronoun
“Who” can function both as a subject and an object, as illustrated below.
- Who is the teacher’s favorite student? (who as subject)
- Who did you beat? (who as object)
Briefly, the subject of a sentence is the person, place, or thing that performs the action in the sentence. Meanwhile, the object is the person, place, or thing that receives the action (source).
“Whom” as Interrogative Pronoun
“Whom” can only function as an object of a sentence and usually only in formal language, as we illustrate below.
- Whom can I trust?
- Whom did you give the letter to?
In very formal written usage, we sometimes use a preposition before “whom,” such as “to whom did you give the letter?”
Less formally, we can substitute “who” for “whom” in all cases, especially when speaking. The sentences below are still correct and sound less formal.
- Who can I trust?
- Who did you give the letter to?
We use relative pronouns when we introduce relative clauses. Relative clauses generally follow a noun and either identify that noun or tell us something more about it. Consider the following examples.
- The boy who was wearing a purple shirt stole my laptop.
- Mrs. Smith, who lives in my street, is sitting over there.
- The people whom we interviewed were all experts in computer science.
“Who” as a Relative Pronoun
We use “who” as a pronoun to refer to people and to introduce defining and non-defining clauses. Defining clauses give necessary information that helps us understand what the writer is referring to. Non-defining clauses give extra information that isn’t crucial to understanding.
- There’s the man who doesn’t like me. (defining clause)
- Jack, who’s in my class, invited me to the party. (non-defining clause)
As with interrogative pronouns, “who” can act as the subject or object of the relative clause.
- She’s staying with a girl who comes from Australia.
Here, “who” refers to “a girl” and is the subject of “comes from” in the relative clause.
- The boy who we argued with yesterday lives opposite us.
In this example, “who” refers to “the boy” and is the object of “argued with” in the relative clause.
“Whom” as a Relative Pronoun
We generally use “whom” in formal writing to refer to people who are the verb’s object. However, you’ll rarely hear it in speech as few use it in everyday conversation. Nevertheless, in formal writing, we might see it in examples such as the following.
The opinion of those workers whom I surveyed was that the company should increase their wages.
In this example, “whom” refers to “those workers” and is the object of “surveyed.”
He was a famous poet whom they had showered with accolades.
The “whom” refers to “a famous poet” and is the object of “showered.”
Using Who or Whom in Sentences
The best way to check whether to use “who” or “whom” is to substitute it with the personal pronoun “she/he” or “her/him.”
If he/she would be the correct choice, then you should use “who,” and if him/her would apply, then the choice could be “whom.” This method depends on you being able to choose the correct personal pronoun (source).
Consider the table below that illustrates this clearly. Note that sometimes you may need to alter the word order slightly.
|Example||Him/Her or He/She|
|Mr. Smith referred his query to a specialist whom he met in January.||Mr. Smith met him/her in January.|
|Jack is the boy whom I am dating.||I am dating him.|
|Jane is the girl who asked the difficult question.||She asked the difficult question.|
|Whom can I trust?||Can I trust him/her?|
|Who is the competition winner?||Is he/she the competition winner?|
Let’s consider some other instances where we may wonder which one to choose.
“Who I recommend” or “Whom I recommend”?
Here we would say “I recommend him/her”; therefore, the correct choice would be “whom.”
The candidate, whom I recommend, has an excellent resume.
“Who I choose” or “Whom I choose”?
Again, we would say, “I choose him/her”; therefore, the correct choice would be “whom.”
The actress, whom I choose to support, is performing tonight.
“Who did you talk to” or “Whom did you talk to”?
Here we would say, “Did you talk to him/her”; therefore, the formal, grammatically correct choice would be “whom” as in this sentence: Whom did you talk to when you arrived?
However, as we discussed above, it’s rare to see someone use “whom” at the beginning of sentences in this type of construction, and we would be more likely to say, “Who did you talk to when you arrived?”
“Who should I contact” or “Whom”?
This question is the same as the previous example; the grammatically correct choice is “Whom should I contact?” but we would be more likely to say, “Who should I contact?”
“Who is considered” or “Whom is considered”?
Here we would say, “He/She is considered,” and the correct choice is “who.” Again, this is likely to be a relative clause.
- The runner, who is considered the best in his distance, is likely to win the race.
For more discussion on this, read “Plural of Who: Understanding Who, Whose, and Whom.”
Is Whom Obsolete?
It is rare to hear anyone use “whom” in speech, and it is becoming less common in written contexts (source). However, purists still expect to see it used in formal contexts.
According to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), English speakers use “who” more than 30 times more than “whom” (source).
The Collins Online Dictionary, which shows frequency and trends from the Google Ngrams project, reveals a steady decline in the use of “whom” over the past three centuries (source). The relative frequency in 2008 is less than a fifth of what it was in 1708.
As discussed already, it’s easier to decide whether to use “who” or “whom” when it’s clear whether it’s the subject or the object of the sentence. However, it’s a little less clear when you consider it in the context of “Who/m can I trust?” or “Who/m are you waiting for?”
Strictly speaking, the pronoun in these examples should be “whom,” but it’s very unlikely that anyone would actually use that construction in spoken or informal written English.
Where “Whom” Is More Common
Mostly, you’ll be fine if you choose “who,” but there are examples where you’ll see “whom” more commonly. Consider the examples below.
- The children, three of whom were injured, were brought out of the cave.
- The man to whom you were speaking is my boss.
- To whom it may concern:
You could reconstruct these sentences to avoid using “whom,” but you cannot substitute “who” in these instances. However, they all sound very formal, and we would more likely say the first two less formally as follows:
- They brought the children out of the cave, including three who were injured.
- The man who you were speaking to is my boss.
The greeting “to whom it may concern” is very old-fashioned, and most people try to avoid it wherever possible by rather finding out the name of the person they are corresponding with.
However, sometimes this isn’t possible, such as with formal letters of recommendation or introduction and formal correspondence, so its use is unavoidable.
Whom + Prepositions
As you will have noticed from the examples above, the most common usage of “whom” is when a preposition precedes it, such as “to whom,” “with whom,” or “of whom.”
Formal language avoids ending a sentence with a preposition, so it becomes necessary to place them, together with whom, in the body of the sentence.
Although grammarians today allow sentences to end with prepositions in favor of making them sound too formal and wordy, many writers still try to stick to that rule.
For example, consider the sentences below that show the difference between using “whom” together with a preposition and the informal usage that is acceptable today. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
- There was only one person to whom she would speak. (Formal)
- There was only one person who she would speak to. (Informal)
- He remembered the teacher with whom he shared a love of art. (Formal)
- He remembered the teacher who he shared a love of art with. (Informal)
- The author of whom she spoke so fondly died yesterday. (Formal)
- The author who she spoke so fondly of died yesterday. (Informal)
As we’ve seen, deciding whether to say “Who can I trust” vs. “Whom can I trust” is not as simple as it may seem. Although the broad rule of thumb — using “who” to replace the subject of a sentence and “whom” to replace the object — still holds true, modern usage often challenges this.
The use of “whom” has been rapidly declining, and it is increasingly acceptable to replace it with “who” in almost all cases. However, formal usage still dictates that we use “whom” in some specific contexts, so it’s essential to know to whom you are speaking to know who is right and who is wrong!