Who or whom?

A wordsmith offers some modern rules to live by for one of grammar's knotty questions.
By Arthur Plotnik | Published: September 29, 2011


Excuse our lather, folks, but we’re just back from the glammy Grammatical Grammy Awards, where Who was vying with Whom for Best Actor Among Interrogative/Relative Pronouns! We were about to ask the nominees who they were wearing—or maybe whom—when Whom was disqualified for never having acted in a sentence or clause.

Who is the bona fide performer, acting as a subject in place of she, he or they, whereas whom is always acted upon, standing in for him, her or them as a receiver of the action.

Fashion-wise, is it who are you wearing or whom? Think: “You are wearing him (the designer)” and thus whom. But only a word nerd would use whom in a chatty red-carpet interview. Nowadays, when it comes to choosing between the colloquial who and the stiffsounding whom, the correct grammar is the easy part (see sidebar). The subtler challenge is knowing when the correct version needs to show up in your narration, dialogue, queries and proposals—and when it should bow out.

For whom the word exists

The pronoun whom descends from older, fussier grammatical models, but unlike ye it is not quite archaic. Many usage gurus say it is OK to stick with who in all cases except when whom is idiomatic (as in “to whom it may concern”) or the situation calls for formal elegance or learned diction. Whom is likely to be obsolete in a few years, they say—as word watchers have been saying for some two centuries. And yet the word still roosts in the expectations of sophisticated listeners and readers, including editors. Addressing those expectations without a grip on the rules, writers often “overcorrect” a who to a sophisticated-sounding but incorrect whom.

Dear Editor: Let me introduce you to my protagonist, whom, as you will quickly see, loves money. [Correct is who, because it acts, standing for “She loves money.” Ignore asides like “as you will quickly see” that distract from the pronoun’s action.]

Writers need a handle on whom not only to oblige certain sticklers, but to take advantage of the word’s personality: Whom speaks of tension between classes, between formality and informality, tradition and change. “I shall marry whom I please,” says a character, and clearly she is not about to marry any old schlemiel.

Sidebar

Who and whom differ as profoundly as the schlemiel and schlimazel of Yiddish folklore. The schlemiel is the bumbler who spills soup on people. The schlimazel is the poor soul who always gets spilled on. In the universe of grammar, who acts, and whom receives actions, including tweaks from prepositions.

Classical grammar enforced these roles, but usage has softened the distinctions and dumped enough soup on who to make it double as a receiver, as in the following rules (which also apply to whoever and whomever).

In spoken English or conversational writing (e.g., blogs):

• Use who everywhere but after prepositions (to, from, by, etc.) when whom is strongly idiomatic: “That waiter, of whom the less said the better, is a schlemiel.” But: “Who are you calling a schlemiel?” “It doesn’t matter who you spill on. It’s who you know.”

In careful writing:

• Use who when it performs an action (is the subject of a verb); ignore phrases that aren’t part of its action. “Who do you suspect spilled the soup?” (Think: “Do you suspect he spilled the soup?”)

• Use whom when it receives action. “Whom she fired had nothing to do with the soup.” (Think: “she fired him” or “[That] she fired him. …”)

• Use whom if it follows a preposition, and, in choice English, if a preposition elsewhere in the sentence pertains to it. “On whom did he spill?” “On that woman, whom he served it to.”

Exceptions: 1) Ignore the preposition when the pronoun acts: “I’ve got something for whoever spilled that soup.” 2) Ignore the preposition when the pronoun is tied to a “to be” verb. “It depends on who the schlemiel is.” “Judge schlimazels for who they are.”

Arthur Plotnik, whom several publishers have honored with book contracts, is he who serves on The Writer Editorial Board.