The use of who and whom can be confusing to anyone new to English. In fact, many native English speakers encounter difficulty in remembering the difference. But don’t fret–assuming you already know the difference between he/she (subject pronouns) and him/her (object pronouns), you will catch on very quickly.
Who is a subject pronoun–just like I, we, he, she, and they. Therefore, who is grammatically interchangeable with subject pronouns. (Recall that subjects appear before the sentence’s main verb). Let’s look at a sentence sentence with she as the subject.
“She watched television this afternoon.”
If we wanted to change this sentence into a question, we would replace the she with who.
“Who watched television this afternoon?”
Easy, right? Let’s look at another example, this time with he. To make it more of a “real world” example, we will begin with the question form first.
“Who played the piano last week?”
“He played the piano last week.”
It doesn’t matter which subject you replace and it doesn’t matter whether it’s in noun or pronoun form.
“They went to the store.”
“Who went to the store?”
“John and Lisa went to the store.”
Whom is an object pronoun–just like me, us, him, her, and them. Therefore, whom is grammatically interchangeable with object pronouns. (Recall that object pronouns–and all object nouns for that matter–“receive” the action). For this reason, object pronouns typically appear toward the end of the sentence. Let’s look at the sentences using him as an example.
“I need to send a letter to him.”
“You need to send a letter to whom?”
“To whom do you need to send a letter?” (formal)
“I need to send a letter to Charles.”
Pay close attention to the location of the verb. The verb is need, and him comes after it.
Important note: whenever a pronoun immediately follows a preposition, we use the object form i.e. to me, from her, at us, with him, by them. (Never ‘to I’ or ‘by they’). Same rule applies to who and whom. After a preposition, always use whom i.e. For Whom the Bell Tolls (not For Who the Bell Tolls). Another example: when writing a formal letter in English, we use the greeting, “To Whom It May Concern.” (Never “To Who It May Concern”).
The more you practice the use of each, the faster your mind will remember how to use them. The key is using them as often as you can, especially in your writing. (Native English speakers often use who regardless of context in spoken English, but don’t let that stop you from using whom in conversation).
To summarize: always remind yourself that if the answer is a subject pronoun, such as I, he she, we, they, and it and you (before the verb) then your questions should begin with who. If, on the other hand, the answer makes use of the object pronouns me, her, him, us, them, it, and you (after the verb), your question should begin with whom.
We hope that was helpful. Take the quiz below for a little Who vs. Whom quizzical fun.
1. How is “Who” used in a sentence?
a) As a preposition
b) As a subject
c) As a verb
2. How does “Whom” function in a sentence?
a) As a subject
b) As an adverb
c) As an object
3. Which of the following words could you use as a replacement of “Who?”
4. Which of the following words could you use as a replacement of “Whom?”
5. Which pronoun can function as an object of a preposition?
Answers: 1. B 2. C 3. A 4. C 5. B