Write Right: Who versus Whom

Write RightI think it’s time to tackle the problematic question of “who” versus “whom.” The question is a problem; if I watch any television show or newscast, I know that an actor or anchor is bound to use the wrong word. My guess is that most people don’t notice the mistake. I do, but that’s why I have a red pen. It’s my job to notice the errors and, I hope, to be paid to correct them or to coach the offending individual.

“Who” is a noun. That is, it can perform actions. A “who” does things. It can be at the door: “Who is at the door?” It can bring a person flowers: “Who gave you the tulips?” It cannot be on the receiving end of actions. I can’t write a poem for a “who.”

I can, however, write a poem for a “whom.” A “whom” is an object, often the object of a preposition: “To whom was he speaking?” Ernest Hemingway, then, was right to title his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. The bell tolls for an object, the “whom,” who, in this case, is Robert Jordan.

Of course, it’s not always easy to choose the correct word. The usual strategy is to re-word a sentence and to replace “who” or “whom” with the applicable personal pronoun:

[Who/Whom] was at the door?

[He/Him] was at the door.

Few people know [who/whom] they should ask.

They should ask [she/her].

The situation becomes trickier when a clause comes between the subject or object and a verb:

He is the one [who/whom] the coaches will say will win.

The easiest method for finding the correct word in such a construction is to delete the intrusive phrase:

He is the one [who/whom] will win.

[He/Him] will win.

I hope that helps with the “who” versus “whom” problem. If any confusion still lingers, leave a comment, and I’ll address it. Also, if you know of a grammar wrong in need of righting or have a question about writing mechanics, you know what to do. Visit the Facebook page and post your question on the wall.

Comments

  1. Clear distinction:) As soon as I saw the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” ran through my head. Cheers! Kaarina

  2. I still constantly struggle with this! Thanks… (I could’ve sworn I read somewhere that it’s becoming more acceptable to use who in many circumstances where whom is technically correct. Or am I just fantasizing about that?)

    •  @yuvizalkow It’s only acceptable when it doesn’t occur in my presence. 😉
       
      I struggle with “continually” and “continuously.” I’m always having to go back to the rule book for that one. A possible Write Right post? I’m thinking yes.