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Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large
Who or Whom?
Thursday March 25th 2010
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Who or Whom?
Answer

One of our readers asks when to use who and when to use whom. Editor Kory Stamper offers some helpful tips.

Who is a very common pronoun in English, used both as an interrogative pronoun in questions ("Who is that?") and as a relative pronoun ("The man who stole my bike was arrested."). This pronoun, like many pronouns, has different cases and forms depending on the use. Grammarians will tell you that who is the nominative case--it is used as the subject of a sentence or clause--and whom is the objective case--it is used as the object of a sentence or clause. Here are some examples:

SUBJECT: Who was talking just now? (She was.)
OBJECT: To whom were you talking just now? (I was talking to her.)

The actual usage of who and whom is not quite so simple, however. Even native English speakers have difficulty remembering when to use who and when to use whom. Generally, whom is more formal than who and does not appear much in spoken English. Whom does appear more in written English, but we've found that who is more common in a few situations where whom would be used instead:

Who is more common than whom in a subordinate clause:
The clerk who I was speaking to has left the building.
(formal & written) The clerk to whom I was speaking has left the building. OR
(formal & written, less common) The clerk whom I was speaking to has left the building.

Who is also more common than whom when it begins questions:
Who were you talking to just now?
(formal & written) To whom were you talking just now? OR
(formal & written) Whom were you talking to just now?

When you use who with to at the beginning of a question, use to whom:
CORRECT: To whom did you mail the letter?
INCORRECT: To who did you mail the letter?

Our reader Emma has two sentences in particular that she is curious about. They are:

Sally ... is surprised to have developed a warm friendship with Philip, a man who she has never personally met. She even told him that the other day, "You're the only close friend I have who, though I've never really met, I really care and worry about."

These two sentences are completely idiomatic to the English speaker. The context here is informal, so a native speaker would tend to use who instead of whom. Some teachers may tell you that you need to use whom in the first sentence at least (if not the second sentence), but it would make the sentence sound very formal. Most native speakers would not consider your grammar bad if you used who in these two sentences.

So if the usage is so difficult for native speakers, how will a learner ever master it? If you are in doubt, it is never incorrect to use whom for the objective case and who for the nominative case in formal and classroom settings. When you are speaking English or are in an informal setting, who is more common.

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