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Grammar Is Sexy

Who vs. Whom

I’m sure you had an English teacher in elementary or middle school who always corrected your grammar. You’d ask a question such as “Who is that apple for?,” and your teacher would reply, “Don’t you mean whom?”

English Teacher and Student Who v Whom Illustrations

How are you supposed to tell the difference?

Does this rule even matter?

“Whom” even cares?

How To Tell The Difference

I’m not going to get into the technical linguistics definitions of “who” and “whom.” If you’re interested in that information, I suggest these sources:

-pp. 60-65 of The Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon

What I’m going to give you is a trick for knowing when to use “who” and when to use “whom.” You don’t have to know the grammatical reasons to use them correctly.

Here’s the trick:

To tell if it’s who, sub he or she. To tell if it’s whom, sub him or her.

Who v Whom Memory Trick Who v Whom Illustrations

Here’s how you put the trick into practice:

Should Raul ask, “Who left my wombat in the rain?” or, “Whom left my wombat in the rain?”

Wombat in The Rain Who v Whom Illustrations

Substitute he/him for who/whom to find out.

Thus, “Who left my wombat in the rain?” becomes “He left my wombat in the rain?” That sounds correct.

“Him left my wombat in rain?,” by contrast, just sounds wrong.

Trust your ear and you can usually tell which is right.

But Does It Even Matter?

Of course, you may be wondering why I’m so concerned about the difference between “who” and “whom.” “Why does it still matter?” you may wonder. You’re not alone in asking.

Daily Writing Tips concludes that “whom” is dying, though those in academia and parts of publishing still cling to it. The Economist thinks much the same thing, citing a high profile magazine ad that uses “who” in place of “whom.” Even Purdue OWL, which is an excellent reference for MLA, APA, and Chicago style (among other topics), states, “In American English, the word whom is not used very often. ‘Whom’ is more formal than ‘who’ and is very often omitted while speaking….”

For everyday speech and texts, IMs, and emails to friends or family, “who” will serve you just fine. In academic and professional writing, though, you should certainly use “whom” when appropriate, particularly in an English class.

In time, “whom” may disappear completely, but for now I suggest you use it to avoid your English professor’s ire.

Angry English Professor Who v Whom Illustrations



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