who; whom (1). Today: Generally. Edward Sapir, the philosopher of language, prophesied that “within a couple of hundred years from to-day not even the most learned jurist will be saying ‘Whom did you see?’ By that time the whom will be as delightfully archaic as the Elizabethan his for its. No logical or historical argument will avail to save this hapless whom.” Language 156-57 (1921; repr. 1949). A safer bet might be that no one will be spelling “to-day” with a hyphen. In any event, writers in the 21st century ought to understand how the words “who” and “whom” are correctly used. “Who,” the nominative pronoun, is used (1) as the subject of a verb {it was Kate who rescued the dog}; and (2) as the complement of a linking verb, i.e., as a predicate nominative {they know who you are}. “Whom,” the objective pronoun, is used (1) as the object of a verb {whom did you see?}; and (2) as the object of a preposition {the person to whom we’re indebted}. It’s true that in certain contexts, “whom” is stilted. That has long been so: “Every sensible English speaker on both sides of the Atlantic says ‘Who were you talking to?’ [– not ‘Whom’ –] and the sooner we begin to write it the better.” J.Y.T. Greig, Breaking Priscian’s Head 23 ([n.d. — ca. 1930]). But there are other constructions in which “whom” remains strong — and more so in American English than British. Although writers have announced the demise of “whom,” it persists in American English — e.g.: o “Susan McDonough’s classroom is filled with primary-school children of different ages, all of whom are lagging behind in reading skills.” Ann O’Hanlon, “A New Take on an Old Problem,” Wash. Post, 28 Sept. 1997, at V1. o “He was implicated in the murder of a man whom his workers caught tampering with some stone blocks.” Manuela Hoelterhoff, “Inconspicuous Consumer,” SmartMoney, 1 Oct. 1997, at 183. (“That’ might work more naturally in this sentence.) The correct uses of “who” are sometimes tricky. But if the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause, it must be “who,” never “whom” — e.g.: “Alan Alda, who you quickly realize is sorely missed on TV, stars as Dan Cutler, a type-A personality advertising executive.” Tom Jicha, “‘White Mile’ Shows How Men Will Be Boys,” Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale), 20 May 1994, at E6. (“Who” is the subject of “is.”) While the subject of a finite verb is nominative {“I know she is good”}, the subject of an infinitive is in the objective case {I know her to be good}. The same is true of “who” and “whom.” But that brings us to the next section. Next: The Objective “who.” For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “To say, ‘Leave the room,’ is less expressive than to point to the door. Placing a finger on the lips is more forcible than whispering, ‘Do not speak.’ A beck of the hand is better than, ‘Come here.’ No phrase can convey the idea of surprise so vividly as opening the eyes and raising the eyebrows. A shrug of the shoulders would lose much by translation into words.” Herbert Spencer, Philosophy of Style 17-18 ([1871]; repr. 1959).
Scroll to Top