Knock-knock jokes are practically an art form in English, and when I heard this one at a Christmas Eve party from Fred Kaimann of The Star-Ledger, I roared. Not only because I was planning to write a blog post on who and whom, but also because these two relative pronouns seem so difficult for so many people, even native English speakers.
Many don’t know the difference but think whom just sounds more correct, so they tend to use it when they’re trying to sound educated. Nine times out of 10, they’re wrong.
So what’s the difference? It’s very simple.
Who is subjective, or nominative, case; use it for the subject of a sentence or clause. (In Who’s there? it’s the subject of ‘s, or is. Note that it’s not spelled whose; that’s the possessive form of who.) Whom is objective — that is, used as the object of a verb or a preposition. That’s why it should be to whom — to is a preposition — rather than to who. If whatever the pronoun stands for is performing the action of the verb, use who. If it is being acted upon or is the object of a preposition, use whom.
Is this example from student work correct or incorrect?
Windsor Terrace has turned into the residence of young urban professionals, who the natives call yuppies.
Incorrect. Yes, who is connecting its subordinate clause of the sentence, but it’s the direct object of its clause. If this sentence were written as two, it would look like this: Windsor Terrace has turned into the residence of young urban professionals. The natives call them yuppies. It’s smoother to connect the two clauses into one complex sentence, which whom does while standing in for them.
But you wouldn’t say Whom moved my cheese? — or at least Spencer Johnson, author of the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” would hope not. Here who is clearly the subject of the sentence.
That much is simple. Often, the tricky part is figuring out whether the pronoun is a subject or an object. As relative pronouns, who and whom connect clauses and need to match the pronoun’s function in the sentence.
Another example from a student:
We have to pay attention to whom the media gave the news.
In this case whom is correct. Not because the whole clause whom the media gave the news is the object of the preposition to, but rather because it’s the direct object of the verb gave. (The media gave them the news.)
I said it was tricky. Even the stage director Michael Kahn was either confused or misquoted when he said, in an interview for the book “Upstaged” by Anne Nicholson Weber:
“Their heroes are whomever is the major movie star of the moment.”
Incorrect. Whoever and whomever follow the same rules as who and whom. In this case, the pronoun is the subject of a clause: whoever is the major movie star of the moment. The entire clause is a predicate nominative, equivalent to the subject of the sentence, their heroes.
Granted, Kahn was speaking, not writing, and speech tends to be less precise. In this New Yorker cartoon, for example, it’s technically wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, but that’s the way people talk. And in casual conversation, most people would find nothing wrong with the who. Writing tends to be more formal and correct, although in journalism you don’t want to sound stuffy.
To test your understanding of who and whom, here’s an interactive quiz. The first thing you’ll see is a note: “Although the correct choice of WHO and WHOM is no longer considered a terribly important matter in grammar, it remains one of the most often asked questions, a sure sign that it bothers people to use it incorrectly.” Strike a balance, but know the difference.