Who vs. Whom in Questions and Relative Clauses

Summary

Who refers to the subject, while whom refers to the object in a sentence. Who can always replace whom and often does in everyday usage. Whom is more formal.

When to use who

Use who as a pronoun to refer to the subject of a question. (The subject is whom or what the sentence is about, or the performer of an action.)

Examples
  • Who wants ice-cream? (subject = the person wanting ice-cream)
  • Who ate all the cookies?
  • Who has written this report?
  • Who wants to volunteer?
  • Who needs a ribbon?
  • Who’s calling at this hour?
  • Who was that on the phone?
  • Who knows what’s going to happen?

Also use who as the subject of a relative clause. (As a relative pronoun, who appears after a noun and helps identify or describe it.)

Examples
  • The girl who ate all the cookies is now drinking all the milk.
    “Who ate all the cookies” is a relative clause, the subject of which is “who,” which refers to the girl.
  • I once knew a woman who could swallow a sword.
  • Those who live in wooden houses shouldn’t throw stones either.
  • Do you know anybody who lives in Spain?
  • My cat, who likes cheese, loves pizza.
  • It was me who ate all the cookies.
  • The person who claims to know everything knows nothing.
  • I don’t know who wrote this report.
  • Lulu, who loves to bake, has opened her own bakery.
  • Lulu is throwing a party for a friend of hers who just won an award.

When to use whom

Use whom as the object of a verb (the person or thing affected by the action of the verb) in a question.

Examples
  • Whom did you invite instead? (object = the person being invited)
  • Whom should we call?
  • Whom are we planning to promote this year?
  • Whom can we contact to get this resolved?

Also use whom as the object (or complement) of a preposition (words like with, for, about, etc.)—that is, the person or thing referenced by the preposition.

Examples
  • With whom did you speak? (object of the preposition “with”)
  • To whom am I speaking?
  • About whom are we talking?
  • At whom are you targeting this marketing campaign?

Like who, whom is also a relative pronoun (links a noun to its description), but it refers to the object instead of the subject in a relative clause.

Examples
  • Your representative, whom I spoke with yesterday, refused to process the refund.
    The subject of the relative clause “whom I spoke with yesterday” is “I,” while the object is “whom” (the person spoken to).
  • The man, whom we never should have trusted, drove away with our car.
  • Police are still searching for the robbers, most of whom are on the run.
  • Anita, whom you nominated for the award, has left the company.
Note

In everyday communication, whom can sound excessively formal and is often replaced by who.

Examples
  • Formal: With whom do you live?
    Acceptable: Who do you live with?
  • Formal: Anita, whom you met at the party, is my new boss.
    Acceptable: Anita, who you met at the party, is my new boss.

Who instead of whom

Who can always replace whom in a sentence, and often does in everyday usage, where whom can sound overly formal and even a bit pompous. Whom is now generally confined to formal usage and seen mainly in writing rather than speech.

Examples
  • Acceptable: Who do you love?
    You may use either who or whom to refer to the object of the verb love.
    Formal: Whom do you love?
  • Acceptable: Who are you inviting to your party?
    Formal: Whom are you inviting to your party?
  • Acceptable: Who were you talking to?
    Formal: To whom were you talking?
  • Acceptable: The witnesses, who she finally tracked down, refused to testify.
    Formal: The witnesses, whom she finally tracked down, refused to testify.

Even in formal contexts, whom is used more often with a preposition (about, from, for, at, etc.) than as the object of a verb.

Examples
  • She lived happily with two cats and a husband, about whom she knew nothing.
  • He is someone for whom I would do anything.
  • She said she had a husband in Spain from whom she was now separated.

As the object of a verb, who is often the more natural choice (although using whom would be more formal).

Examples
  • Rita, who I’ve known since childhood, has won an Oscar.
  • We are going on holiday with the Martinezes, who we met last year at a beach resort.
Tip

If you are not sure whether to use who or whom, simply use who. Using who instead of whom is never wrong, but you can’t always use whom in place of who.

Incorrect use of whom

Because whom is considered more formal, it is sometimes incorrectly used in place of who. Don’t use whom to refer to the subject; always use who in this position.

Examples
  • Incorrect: Whom are you?
    Use who, not whom, for the subject.
    Correct: Who are you?
  • Incorrect: The commentator, whom was an expert in the field, provided additional guidance.
    Use who as the subject, the person that this clause is about.
    Correct: The commentator, who was an expert in the field, provided additional guidance.
  • Incorrect: I have never met anyone whom isn’t looking for answers.
    Correct: I have never met anyone who isn’t looking for answers.
  • Incorrect: The man, whom I thought was a doctor, stole my purse.
    Correct: The man, who I thought was a doctor, stole my purse.
  • Incorrect: My mother decided whom my friends were.
    Correct: My mother decided who my friends were.

The who-vs-whom trick

To decide whether to use who or whom, a quick trick is to form a question and frame its answer. If the answer is a subject pronoun (he, she, they), what you are referring to is the subject. If it is an object pronoun (him, her, them), what you have is the object.

Examples
  • The girl who/whom stole Rita’s cape thinks she is a superhero.
    Form a question: “Who stole the cape?” Frame an answer: “She stole it,” not “Her stole it.” Since she works and her doesn’t, use who, not whom.
  • Who/whom ate the spider?
    He ate the spider,” not “Him ate the spider.” Use who, not whom.
  • Who/whom did Lulu invite for dinner?
    “She invited them,” not “She invited they.” Use whom in formal writing.

Examples from literature

Here are some examples that show how who is used for the subject in a sentence, and whom for the object of a verb or preposition.

Examples
  • There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.
    Ann Patchett, Bel Canto (2001)
  • It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way.
    Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (2008)
  • He looked as if it were he who was receiving a gift; he had that expression of people who marveled at education with the calm certainty that it would never be theirs.
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
  • Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it. . . . Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.
    Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
  • There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.
    Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • We don’t ask what a woman does; we ask whom she belongs to.
    George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)
  • There was no one to whom he could explain that in order to survive he needed to be at altitude, a Himalayan altitude, so he might breathe.
    Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance (2011)
  • I’m not a teacher: only a fellow-traveller of whom you asked the way.
    George Bernard Shaw, Getting Married (1908)

Whoever or whomever?

In formal writing, use whoever to refer to the subject and whomever as the object of a verb or a preposition.

Examples
  • Subject: Whoever made this is a genius.
  • Subject: Whoever has the golden ticket wins a centillion dollars.
  • Subject: Whoever said life was easy never lived.
  • Object: Whomever I asked said they had seen nothing.
  • Object: I will speak with whomever I please.
  • Object: Whomever Farley trusts betrays him.

Just as who can always replace whom, whoever can always replace whomever as the object in a sentence. In everyday communication, whoever is used for both subject and object.

Examples
  • Acceptable: You can invite whoever you like.
    Formal: You can invite whomever you like.
  • Acceptable: Farmers must be allowed to trade with whoever they wish.
    Formal: Farmers must be allowed to trade with whomever they wish.

However, in formal writing and edited prose, the distinction between whoever as subject and whomever as object is generally maintained, as seen in the following examples.

Examples
  • Subject: Whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities.
    Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (1912)
  • Object: Goodbyes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say goodbye to.
    Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris (1935)

After a preposition like to or for, writers often get whoever and whomever mixed up. Always use whoever as subject, not whomever.

Example
  • Incorrect: I’m writing this for whomever needs to hear this today.
    The entire clause “whoever/whomever needs to hear this” is the object of the preposition for. The subject of this clause (the person who needs to hear this) is whoever, not whomever.
    Correct: I’m writing this for whoever needs to hear this today.
Tip

If you’re confused about using whoever or whomever, simply use whoever. Whoever can always replace whomever, but not vice versa.

Whosoever or whomsoever?

Whosoever and whomsoever are formal terms for whoever and whomever. As such, they are almost never used anymore, except in legalese. If you find yourself tempted to use them, perhaps with humorous intent, use them correctly so as to avoid ridicule. Use whosoever to refer to the subject, and whomsoever for the object.

Examples
  • Subject: Whosoever believes is promised ice-cream.
  • Subject: Let the fleas of a thousand donkeys infest my enemies, whosoever they may be.
  • Object: We shall accept whomsoever you choose to be king.
  • Object: To whomsoever it may concern . . .

Quick Quiz

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Which is preferred in formal writing?
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Which is/are acceptable in informal communication?
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Did You Know?

Square brackets enclose an editorial clarification.
Know more:Parentheses (Round Brackets) vs. Square Brackets