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English Corner

Scientific English grammar and style   English Corner   Glossary of English grammar and style  

English Corner 9: who and whom

Who and whom are both relative and interrogative pronouns, depending on their use. Who is in the nominative (subject) case and whom the accusative (object) case. Who is used as a subject whether in a question [Who gave the book to the man?] or as a relative pronoun [I gave it to the man who has a book]. Whom is an indirect object, whether in a question [To whom did you give the book? Whom did you give the book to?] or as a relative pronoun [The man to whom I gave a book. To whom it may concern].

Although this rule is simple, who and whom are often used incorrectly, especially when one’s attention is distracted by a clause that separates the subject or object from its verb.

Comparison with he and him
A simple way to remember when to use who and when whom is to consider whether you could use he (nominative case) or him (accusative case) in their place.
If he would be used [He gave the book to the man], use who [Who gave the book to the man?]; if him [She gave the book to him], use whom [She gave the book to whom?], which is more usually written as [To whom did she give the book?].

Applying sequential procedures
When clauses separate subject and object from the verb, who and whom can be distinguished by applying the following sequential procedures: (a) separating the clause by commas; (b) removing the clause; (c) checking whether who (nominative) is the subject of the verb or whom (accusative) is the object of the verb; (d) if necessary, changing who for whom or vice versa, and finally (e) replacing the omitted words.

Example: Who written instead of whom
With [I congratulated the student to who I was sure the prize was given], separation of the clause by commas (a) yields [I congratulated the student to who, I was sure, the prize was given]; removing the clause (b) yields [I congratulated the student to who the prize was given]; checking whether who is the subject of the verb (c) reveals that this is not the case: who is nominative but used here as the indirect object of the verb given; (d) changing who to whom gives [I congratulated the student to whom the prize was given] and replacing the omitted words (e) gives the correct wording [I congratulated the student to whom I was sure the prize was given].

Example: Whom written instead of who
Similarly, with [I gave it to the student whom I was sure was the author], process (a) yields [I gave it to the student whom, I was sure, was the author]; (b) yields [I gave it to the student whom was the author]; (c) reveals that the wrong word has been used: whom is accusative but used here as the subject of the verb was; (d) gives [I gave it to the student who was the author] and (e) gives the correct wording [I gave it to the student who I was sure was the author].

By Dr Trevor G Cooper (ctrevorg@gmail.com)

 
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