Pronouns – the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ (cheat’s version)

Does the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ really matter?

No man is an island, entire of itself: every man … is a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in all mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne, ‘Meditation XVII’, Devotions upon Emergent Occasion

Most people vaguely know the phrase ‘for whom the bell tolls’ from the title of the book by Ernest Hemingway, but Hemingway took it from the great English poet John Donne. And if you think whom, like thee and mankind, is a word that belongs back in the seventeenth century (when Donne wrote his Meditations), you’re not far wrong; even the Australian Style Manual cautions that whom can sound overly formal and can often (but not yet always) left out. The current attitude to whom was coincidentally summed up in an article in this weekend’s Saturday Paper: ‘[On the ship] we entertained ourselves by inventing new names and backstories and seeing whom we could get buy our alter egos drinks. (We astutely never used the word “whom” in any of our Funship conversations.)’ – Cindy MacDonald, ‘La Mer the merrier’.

In essence, the answer to the question ‘Does the difference between who and whom really matter?’ is, increasingly, ‘no’. I think this a pity, because the difference is not that hard to grasp and, once you know it, it is easy to apply.

The basic non-technical difference

Are you able to use the words he and him? If so, you can use who and whom, because the difference between these words is exactly the same! (She and her don’t work in the same way, because while we have three types of the male pronoun and our indeterminate pronoun – he, him, his and who, whom, whose – the female pronoun has only two versions: she and her, with her also filling in the possessive uses, equivalent to his and whose.) The very simple way to work out whether you need who or whom is to try substituting he and him. If him is needed, then whom is needed.

  • Who or Whom hired you?
  • He or Him hired you?
  • Correct pronoun: Who hired you?
  • You hired who or whom?
  • You hired he or him?
  • Correct pronoun: You hired whom?
You hired whom?

But sometimes, in questions, in can be difficult to work out which word is required:

  • He or him are you going out with?
  • Correct pronoun: Whom (him) are you going out with?

If you didn’t come up with the correct pronoun, don’t worry: this is one of the cases where most people won’t notice the difference or may even think the ‘correct’ answer is wrong! Understanding the technical differences between who and whom is the best way to grasp why we should say Whom are you going out with? (even if it does make you sound like a frosty old lady in Downton Abbey).

The technical difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’

The actual technical difference is easy. We use who as the nominative pronoun (for the subject of a sentence) and whom as the dative (for the object of a sentence, and also as the object of a preposition). Simples! as the British PM might say. Unfortunately, you need to understand what the subject and object of a sentence are and also what prepositions are to follow this explanation, and these are topics I haven’t yet covered. Until I have, just follow the simple explanation, and use who if you can’t work out which word is required.

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Photos: church bell by Chris Barbalis, women in meeting by Amy Hirshci, both on Unsplash

4 comments on “Pronouns – the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’ (cheat’s version)”

    • Susan Reply

      By ‘cheat version’ I mean this is a tip to work out which word you should use without having to understand the grammar behind the choice. I hope it is a useful short cut, but it is a little bit lazy; it is much better to understand the difference between subject (nominative) and indirect object (dative) pronouns.

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