WHO and WHOM: Which, and does it matter?

[If this is too long or too confusing, see the tl;dr in this post on my tumblr.]

An acquaintance of mine believes that the whole WHO / WHOM business is nonsense cooked up by grammarians to make the rest of us feel insecure. He insists that as long as your hearer or reader knows what you mean, it doesn’t matter whether what you say is grammatical. He challenged me to come up with a sentence in which the use of WHO or WHOM makes a difference to the meaning. I have to admit that so far I’ve been unable to do so.1 (Anyone? Anyone?)


(Lots of people use lots of “bad” grammar but get their meaning across perfectly well. Does this mean we should just forget about grammar and stop teaching it? Discuss.)


As you will have guessed, I think it’s important, if not to use the correct word, at least to know which is the correct word, and if possible to know why. So I’m going to try to explain the WHO / WHOM distinction, for those who might not be sure about it but would like to know.


The rule is that WHO is used in the subjective case and WHOM is used in the objective case. Don’t whine; just be glad you don’t have to worry about different forms for genitive, dative, and ablative. Actually, you don’t even have to know anything about the subjective and objective cases; I bet we can sort this out without ever mentioning them again.


1. That’s the man WHO / WHOM I met at Sally’s.


Here is a handy trick that will guarantee the correct form every time: just turn the sentence around in such a way that you can substitute HIM for the mystery word. In sentence 1, this means taking away “That’s the man.” Then we turn the sentence around and see if we can say “I met HIM at Sally’s.” We can.  This means that our sentence takes WHOM.


Now you do the next three:


2. Guess WHO / WHOM I met at Sally’s.

3. That’s the man WHO / WHOM they elected chairman of the board.

4. Guess WHO / WHOM they elected chairman of the board.


Resist the temptation to take “Guess HIM” as the turned-around sentence. The turned-around sentence has to contain the gist of the sentence you’re working with. I know we took away “That’s the man” in sentence 1, but we could have rewritten and kept the meaning: “That’s the man—I met HIM at Sally’s.” So in sentence 2, “I met HIM,” so WHOM. Sentences 3 and 4, “They elected HIM,” so WHOM. Get the idea?


In other words, HIM = WHOM. And WHOM and HIM both conveniently end in M, making it easy to remember.


Okay. On to number 5:


5. WHO / WHOM shall I say is calling?


In this sentence we don’t have to take anything away, we just have to turn it around: “Shall I say HIM is calling?” If my secretary said that, I’d fire him, if I had a secretary. No, as I’m sure you know, it is in fact correct to say, “Shall I say HE is calling?” So this sentence takes WHO. Yes, it does! I don’t care how often you’ve heard someone ask, “WHOM shall I say is calling?” They got it wrong.


In other words, WHO = HE. This is easy to remember. I’m sure you’ve said, or heard someone say, “Who he?”


Now you do numbers 6 and 7:


6. To WHO / WHOM should she send the report?

7. It all depends on WHO / WHOM you know.


Number 6 is easy: she should send the report to HIM, so WHOM. Number 7 is a little more involved. You might want to say, “It all depends on HIM,” which is a perfectly good sentence but not the sentence we’re working with. So let’s go a little further: It all depends on knowing HIM, so WHOM. Got that? In this case you get the right answer even if you use the truncated sentence, but that’s not always true. As we shall see.


Let’s move on to sentence number 8, which is tricky in the same way, only more so:


8. If you knew WHO / WHOM called me yesterday, you’d faint.


You might be tempted to say, “If you knew HIM,” so WHOM. But the sentence isn’t about knowing someone, it’s about knowing which person placed the telephone call. So, “If you knew HIM called me.” That’s not right, and you probably wouldn’t say it. (Although Tarzan might.) “If you knew HE called me, you’d faint.” That sounds perfectly acceptable. Therefore, “If you knew WHO called me” is correct.


The next three are fun (okay, I have a somewhat warped idea of fun):


9. WHO / WHOM did you expect?

10. WHO / WHOM did you expect to answer when you phoned?

11. WHO / WHOM did you expect would answer when you phoned?


“Did you expect HIM?” so WHOM. “Did you expect HIM to answer when you phoned?” so WHOM. And then, “Did you expect HIM would answer when you phoned?” Well, no; you expected HE would answer. So WHO.


Think about those: “WHOM did you expect? “WHOM did you expect to answer?” “WHO did you expect would answer?”


And now, sentence 12:


12. I want WHO / WHOMever did this to come forward.


“I want HIM,” “I want HIM to come forward,” but we are not taking the whole sentence into account here. Let’s rewrite it into sentence 13:


13. I want the one WHO / WHOM did this this to come forward.


This doesn’t mean the same as “I want the one,” or even “I want the one to come forward.” It’s not just any old “one”—it’s specifically the perpetrator, “the-one-who-did-this.”


And in sentence 13 we can see at once that it has to be WHO, because “HE did this.”


So sentence 12 would correctly take WHOever.


Now you try this one. Remember to take the meaning of the whole sentence into account.


14. Give the money to WHO / WHOMever needs it.


The sentence is not telling you to give the money to a specific HIM, but to a random person meeting a specific criterion, the criterion of needing it. WHO needs it? HE needs it. So give the money to WHOever needs it.


See how simple it is? And as promised, we didn’t even have to talk about the subjective or objective case (although I am certainly willing to do so, if there are any requests).


Meanwhile, please be thinking about my request for help at the end of paragraph one, and please let me know if you come up with anything.



1. Okay, I have found one. This is the beginning of a very old hymn:


Prostrate I adore thee,

Deity unseen,

Who thy glory hidest

’Neath these shadows mean.


There are several problems with this example. First of all, it’s in “old-fashioned” language, using archaic pronouns (thee, thy), an archaic verb form (hidest), an archaic elision (’neath), and nonstandard word order.


It’s the nonstandard word order that requires the WHO / WHOM distinction here.


In modern language and standard word order, the third and fourth lines of the hymn would be “who hides your glory underneath these shabby shadows.”


If WHOM were used, the third and fourth lines, in modern language and standard word order, would be “whom your glory hides underneath these shabby shadows,” or, in other words, “whose glory hides you underneath these shabby shadows.”


In the first case, WHO is the subject: the deity is hiding his glory.


In the second case, GLORY would be the subject and WHOM would be the object: the glory is hiding the deity.


So here the use of WHO or WHOM completely changes the meaning of the sentence—but I admit that this is a rather obscure and far-fetched example.