By Ed DeJesus
Writer's Infusion Critiquer
Whom’s On First?
“Who” and “whom” are extremely useful little words, and they show up in interesting and thought-provoking ways:
“Who’s on first?” — Abbott and Costello comedy act
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” — John Donne poem and Hemingway book title
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — play by Edward Albee
“Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad” — cheery Longfellow quote
“Who you gonna call?” — Ghostbusters tag line
The problem is that it can be tricky to judge when to use “who” and when to use “whom.” In fact, one of the above quotes is actually grammatically incorrect: can you tell which one?
The Basics: “Who” Performs the Action
“Who” and “whom” are both pronouns — words that stand in for nouns — and both mean “which unknown or unnamed person.” But that’s where the similarities end.
“Who” is always the subject of a sentence, the person doing, performing action, or being. When you’re looking for a subject — a person performing the action — you always use “who.”
In the sentence “[—]’s on first?”, we’re looking for a subject, some person to stand on first base. That means we’d use “who”: “Who’s on first?”
Same thing with “[—]’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” We’re looking for someone to be afraid: that’s a subject of the sentence, so we’d use “who”: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Look at this sentence: “[—] is coming to the party?” This unknown person is going to perform the action of coming to the party, so they’re the subject of the sentence and we would use “who”: “Who is coming to the party?”
“Whom” the Action Went To
In contrast, “whom” is never the subject of a sentence. “Whom” is always an object in a sentence, and there are several kinds of object that “whom” can be:
• “whom” as a direct object. Unlike a subject, which performs the action, a direct object receives the action. In this sentence, “[—] did you invite to the party?”, the unknown person isn’t doing the inviting, they’re being invited: they’re receiving the action, so we would use “whom”: “Whom did you invite to the party?”
In “[—] the gods would destroy …”, the unknown person sure isn’t doing the action of destroying, they’re the poor schmuck being destroyed. They are direct objects, so we would use “whom”: “Whom the gods would destroy…”
• “whom” as object of a preposition. A preposition is a word, like “to” or “from” or “by” or “for,” that connects one word with the rest of the sentence. In “To [—] did you give the invitation?”, the unknown person has the connecting preposition “to,” making it the object of the preposition, and so we would use “whom”: “To whom did you give the invitation?”
In “For [—] the Bell Tolls,” an unknown person is linked with the preposition “for,” so we would use “whom”: “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
By the way, object of a preposition is the easiest situation to spot, so you always know to use “whom” in that case.
• “whom” as object of gift. This is very rare in English, but if A is giving something “to” B, we don’t always use the “to”. We can say, “A gave B the invitation,” instead of “A gave the invitation to B.” You can do the same with “whom.” “Whom did you give an invitation?”
The Tricky Parts
The above seems fairly simple: if it’s a subject, use “who”; if it’s an object, use “whom.” Easy peasy.
The problem is that sometimes it’s hard to tell if a word is a subject or an object. One reason for this is passive voice.
“Who” Gets Passive Action Performed on Them
In this sentence, “[—] was invited to the party?” it sure looks like the unknown person is the direct object. They aren’t doing the inviting, right? They’re the one being invited, right? Direct object, right? Not in this case, and it’s because of the verb “was invited.” This verb is not in active voice. It’s not somebody doing something. It’s in passive voice: somebody is getting something done to them: someone is being invited. That unknown person is, therefore, the subject of a passive verb: we would use “who”: “Who was invited to the party?”
“Who” Performs the Action in a Clause
The other complication in telling subject from object is with clauses in sentences. In this sentence, “Sheila knows [—] is coming to the party,” it sure looks like that unknown person is the direct object. They aren’t doing the knowing, right? They’re the one that’s known, right? Direct object, right? Again, not in this case, and it’s because the unknown person is part of a clause. What Sheila knows is “[—] is coming to the party.” In that clause, the unknown person is definitely the subject: they are performing the action of coming to the party. So we use “who”: “Sheila knows who is coming to the party.”
Here’s a tricky variation of the same thing: “Sheila knows [—] was invited to the party.” Now, this REALLY looks like a direct object. The unknown person isn’t doing the knowing and they’re not doing the inviting either, right? Direct object, right? Not really, because the unknown person is part of the clause “[—] was invited to the party.” In that clause, there’s a passive verb: “was invited.” So the unknown person is the subject of that passive verb in that clause, and we use “who”: “Sheila knows who was invited to the party.”
“Whom Receives the Action, Even in a Clause
One last clause: “Sheila knows [—] Trevor invited to the party.” The unknown person is part of the clause “[—] Trevor invited to the party.” Trevor is doing the inviting. The verb is active voice. So the unknown person is the direct object of the clause, and we would use “whom”: “Sheila knows whom Trevor invited to the party.”
The Final Complication: “Who” Sounds Better
Okay, now for the famous quote that sounds great — but is grammatically incorrect. If you do everything mentioned above, you will be using “who” and “whom” correctly and grammatically. It will be right, but it might not sound right. This is because the word “whom” sounds stilted and formal. People almost never use it in conversation.
In the examples at the very beginning, “Who you gonna call?” is grammatically incorrect. As we’ve discussed, the unknown person here is receiving the action; they are the one being called. Therefore, they are the direct object, and we should use “whom.” But “Whom you gonna call?” sounds ridiculous. As informal speech, “who” sounds much better: “Who you gonna call?”
This often happens when the unknown person is far from the verb, as in that example. “Who did you invite?” sounds more natural than “Whom did you invite?” because the unknown person is far from the verb.
This even happens with prepositions. “To whom did you send the invitations?” is grammatically correct, but we’re much more likely to hear someone say, “Who did you send the invitations to?” Again, it should be “whom,” but because the unknown person is so far from the preposition, “who” sounds better.
To use “who” and “whom” correctly, first decide if the unknown person is the subject, and don’t get fooled by clauses and passive verbs. If the person is the subject, use “who.” Otherwise, use “whom.” But always test to see how it sounds: “whom” can sound snooty and formal, which might not be what you want, especially in dialogue.
Get this right, and who could ever deny you’re the one to whom the credit should go?