Who vs. whom

Who vs. Whom

 

 

Many speakers have abandoned the word “whom” and use only the word “who.” Both formal and written English preserve the distinction between them, however, and vive la difference! The difference is one of case; “who” is the nominative or subjective case form, whereas “whom” is the accusative, or objective case form. Modern English does not use case for nouns in general, except for the genitive, or possessive  –‘s. Pronouns, however, retain case, and in formal and written English, relative pronouns are no exception. To understand when to use “whom,” one should first review the use of case in English pronouns more generally.

 

Consider these two charts:

 

 

Case First Person Singular Personal Pronoun First Person Plural Personal Pronoun Second Person Personal Prounoun Second Person Personal Prounoun Third Person Personal Prounoun Third Person Plural Personal Prounoun
Nominative a.k.a. subjective I We (Thou) You You She

He

It

They
Genitive a.k.a. possessive My Our (Thy)    Your Your Her

His

Its

Their
Predicative Genitive Mine Ours (Thine) Yours Yours Hers

His

Its

Their
Accusative a.k.a. objective Me Us (Thee) You You (Ye) Her

Him

It

Them

 

 

 

Case Relative

Pronoun

Interrogative Pronoun
Nominative

a.k.a. subjective

Who

Which

That

Who?

What?

Genitive

a.k.a. possessive

Whose

Of which

Whose?

Of what?

Predicative Genitive N/A N/A

 

Accusative

a.k.a. objective

Whom

Which

That

Whom?

What?

 

Nominative case identifies a word as either a subject or a subject complement. Consider the sentences:

 

1a. I am writing this article.

1b. You are reading a book.

1c. She runs in marathons.

1d. He leaps over fences.

1e. They ate out last night.

1f. Who wants pizza?

1g. What will happen tomorrow?

 

The pronouns identified in boldface are all the subjects of their respective verbs and sentences. As subjects, they are all in the nominative, or subjective case. Consider as well:

 

1h. Who is she?

1i. I am she.

1j. When did she become he?

 

Each of these sentences has two pronouns in the nominative case, one for the subject, and the other for the subject complement. In sentence 1h, “who” is the subject and “she” is the subject complement. One could argue as well that “she” is the subject at a deeper level of the structure of the sentence; the very possibility that “she” may be the subject clinches the need for the nominative. In sentence 1i, “I’ is the subject, and “she” is the subject complement; “she” “agrees with” or refers back to the subject. In 1j, “she” is the subject, and “he” is the complement, referring back to the same subject. Subject complements take the nominative; they must agree with their subjects in case and number (plural vs. singular), although not necessarily in person. In general, notwithstanding 1j, they agree in gender as well; one can conceive a similar exception to the rule of number agreement:

 

1k. When did he become they?

 

Genitive case, also known as possessive, indicates belonging to, pertaining to, or coming from.

 

2a. My shoes got wet.

 

The shoes belong to the speaker (the I); the “I” possesses them; they are the shoes of the

speaker. If we can substitute of, then we need the genitive case.

 

2b. Liza’s answers make a lot of sense.

 

The answers come from Liza; they are of her. Hence, genitive case: Liza’s.

 

2c. Your comments intrigue me.

 

The comments come from you; they are of you. Therefore, they are your comments; “your” is genitive.

 

2d. Her purple coat reaches her ankles.

 

The purple coat both pertains and belongs to her; “her” must therefore be genitive.

 

2e. His tie has green polka dots.

 

As with the purple coat, the tie both pertains and belongs to him, so the pronoun must be in the genitive: “his”.

 

2f. The dog’s leash is loose. In fact, its leash is so loose  that it may slip off altogether.

 

The leash pertains to the dog; it is the leash of the dog (and of its owner); therefore dog is in the genitive case (dog’s), as is the pronoun “its” in the second sentence here.

 

2g. Their advice helped me enormously.

 

The advice in question comes from them; it is the advice of them; therefore, they are in the genitive case: “their”.

 

2h. Whose idea was that?

 

The predicative genitive is a genitive that can serve as the predicate of the sentence; it can fit into the last position in a sentence of the type: The widget is ______.

 

3a. The widget is mine.

vs. ordinary genitive: It’s my widget.

 

3b. The book is yours.

vs. ordinary genitive: It’s your book.

 

3c. The cloak is his.

 

3d. The decision is hers.

vs. It’s her decision.

 

3e. The place is theirs.

vs. their place

 

3f. This child is ours.

vs. our child

 

3g. That gargantuan umbrella is whose?

 

 

The accusative case, also called the objective case, marks the direct object of a verb, and also the object of a preposition.

 

4a. I love thee.

 

4b. Thou lovest me.

 

4c. She loves him.

 

4d. She loves her.

 

4e. He loves her.

 

4f. He loves them.

 

In 4a., the speaker loves the person addressed, “thee.” In 4b, the person addressed loves the speaker (or so, at least, the speaker declares). Note that “you,” originally the plural or formal form, does not show this distinction. In all the examples above, the accusative marks the one who is loved, and the nominative marks the one who loves. This holds equally for other verbs: the nominative “verbs” the accusative, i.e., the one doing the action is in the nominative case, and the one on the receiving end of the action is in the accusative.  Similarly:

 

4g. You love whom?????

 

Note that in spoken English, many people would say, “Who do you love?” but the more formal, written language requires “Whom do you love?” instead; more formal registers of the spoken language also require “Whom do you love?”

 

Let’s try this with some other verbs:

 

4h. Did you walk the dog? Yes, I walked him.

 

4i. The artist drew them last week.

 

If we change these to use the relative or interrogative pronoun, then we will need to use “whom” to retain the accusative case:

 

4j. The dog whom you walked seems upset.

 

4k. Whom did you walk?

 

4l. The people whom the artist drew last week are now in California.

 

4m. Whom did the artist draw?

 

 

Indirect objects also take the accusative case:

 

4n. Mindy gave her the book when she visited.

 

Ordinarily, however, one would use the preposition “to” or “for” together with the accusative case to mark the indirect object. Objects of prepositions also take the accusative.

 

4o. Mindy gave the book to her.

 

4p. Cindy bought the book for him.

 

4q. Wendy drew a picture of them.

 

Here, too, if we substitute relative or interrogative pronouns, they will need to be accusative, i.e. “whom”:

 

4r. The person to whom Mindy gave the book read it in one sitting.

 

4s. To whom did Mindy give the book?

 

4t. The person for whom Cindy bought the book didn’t appreciate it.

 

4u. The person of whom we were speaking suddenly appeared.

 

 

In 4u, “of” means “about,” but “of” can also mean “belonging to.” This meaning is called “genitive” or “possessive.” When “of” has a genitive or possessive meaning we substitute “whose” for “of whom:”

 

4v. The person whose picture Wendy drew dyed her hair and got colored contacts the next day.

 

And now, I hope, the people for whom I have written this article understand when to use “whom” and when to use “who.”

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