It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, back in school, English was my favorite subject. I liked how prescriptive and orderly it was, and I liked that it came pretty easily to me (unlike, say, geometry).
But every grammar superhero has her kryptonite, and mine has always been “who vs. whom” (followed closely by “lay” vs. “lie”—a topic for another day). I would happily continue to avoid this topic altogether, but several people (okay—three people) have asked me to cover it, and I aim to please.
Who vs. Whom
It boils down to this: you use “who” as the subject of a sentence and “whom” as an object. A subject acts, whereas an object is acted upon.
Putting aside “who” and “whom” for a moment, consider these sentences:
- He bought 30 bags of Cheetos—one for every day of the month. Here “he” is the subject of the sentence—the one doing the acting.
- Toss him a bag of Cheetos. Here “him” is the object (specifically, the indirect object), the one being acted upon.
According to the “Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation,” the who vs. whom conundrum can be boiled down to a simple formula where “he = who” and “him = whom.” Essentially, you answer your own question, substituting “he” for “who” and “him” for “whom.” Here are some examples:
- Who/Whom bought 30 bags of Cheetos? Here it would be “who” because you’d say “he” bought the Cheetos, not “him” bought the Cheetos. Make sense?
- To who/whom should I toss the bag of Cheetos? Here it would be “whom” because you’d toss the Cheetos to “him”; you wouldn’t toss them to “he.”
Lest those two deliciously cheesy examples fail to clarify this often-confusing issue, here are a few more examples:
- We were wondering who/whom the Guns ‘N Roses tickets are for. Here, it would be “whom” because the tickets are for “him,” not for “he.”
- Who/whom should I say is calling? Here it would be “who” because “he” is calling; “him” isn’t calling.
- Who/whom wrote the letter? Since “he” wrote the letter (“him” didn’t write the letter), the correct answer is “who.”
- Who/whom should I vote for? Because you would vote for “him” (you wouldn’t vote for “he”), the right choice is “whom.”
Want more examples? The Oatmeal has a fun comic called “How and why to use whom in a sentence” that includes references to spiders, eagle sandwiches, and flamethrowers. I highly suggest you check it out. I’d also like to challenge you to apply the “he” vs. “him” methodology and take this quick, 10-question quiz. Then post how you did in the comments below.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another post. In the meantime, what’s your grammatical kryptonite?