To Whom It May Concern

An overview of when to use who or whom in spoken and written English.

By Tom Duda

'Grammar' in the dictionary

As I was teaching English as a second language in Turkey, it soon became quite apparent that one of the most vexing grammatical difficulties of the English language is deciding when a person should choose to use who, and when he should choose to use whom. Many people somehow think that the word whom sounds classier or more educated than who. Consequently, when they are in doubt as to which form of the word to use, they just use whom to avoid embarrassment—or to sound educated. This strategy can backfire, especially in the company of one who may actually know this grammar rule. Even the native speaker, unless trained extensively in grammar, will have difficulty when faced with the task of explaining the who/whom rule.


Engage Your Class with a Challenge

I always like to begin my advanced lessons with this who/whom exercise as a warm-up. Usually, my students at the advanced level think they know everything about English. I have found that this is a good way to bring them back to a place of trying to learn, rather than the place of trying to show off how much they know. I begin by asking if anyone knows the proper usage of who and whom, and whether they can give me example sentences. Even if I get some participation, I have everyone’s attention. Most people, native speaker or not, are unsure of the usage of these two words.

Here is the basic rule:

When dealing with a subject or subjective complement, one should use who. On the other hand, when dealing with objects, one should most definitely use whom. Note: Word order is one of the reasons why this seemingly simple rule can be confusing.

Understanding Case

First, I will offer a quick refresher in subjective and objective cases in English. Here the subjective pronoun is first, followed by the objective pronoun:

  • He – Him
  • She – Her
  • You – You
  • Who – Whom
  • Whoever – Whomever

Notice all the m’s in the objective cases. This is a good little memory hook. Generally speaking, when a pronoun has an m, it is in the objective case in a sentence.

Helpful Examples for the ESL Classroom

Introduce and then work together to decide the proper usage of who and whom in the following sentences. 

1. The person who you know is a hero.

What is the subject and what is the object? Ask your class who is doing the knowing. Answer: you. Therefore, you is the subjective pronoun and the person is the object. This means that in order to be grammatically correct, the sentence should read, “The person whom you know is a hero.”               

2. Whom did we invite? Who did we invite?

Again, the first step is to discover the subject. The verb is did invite. So, ask the class, “Who did the inviting?” Of course, we did. Since we is the subject, who is the object, making the correct form whom. “Whom did we invite?”

3. Who invited him? Whom invited him?

Use this sentence for comparison to the above example. This will help your students to see the subjective form of who. Since invite is the verb, who did the inviting? Who, therefore, who is the correct form. “Who invited him?”

4. I dined with the man who seldom ate? I dined with the man whom seldom ate?

This example is a bit more complicated, but if you go through it together as a whole class, it will stretch your English language learners and help them to work through the grammatical thought process. In this case, it is pretty easy for learners to identify that I is the subject, and dined is the verb. The challenge is to figure out the part of speech for who. The word with is a preposition and is followed by an object, most often called the object of the preposition. In this case, the object of the preposition is man. Who/whom seldom ate is a clause. What part of speech is who/whom in this clause? The subject, therefore, the correct word is who. Again, this is not a simple sentence, but covers the part of the subjective pronoun part of the rule, and it will get your students thinking. 

Conclude by Instilling Confidence             

After the lesson, I like to point out that whom is usually used in formal speech and writing. The unfortunate truth is that one will seldom hear it in colloquial English.  Of course, the next question is almost always, “Then why should I learn it?” My answer, “Because you will see it on exams, in writing, and in business it is a good practice to use whom in the right places." Additionally, I like to point out that some people, like me, do use the word whom in daily speech. I also tell them that when I use whom, the looks I get from other people are priceless. Just like when I use my British words and phrases in America. Who said English can’t be fun? 

Links to Worksheets

Here are two worksheets that will either give you some sample sentences to work through on the board with your class, or to assign for additional practice: