Language Corner

How to remember who vs. whom

March 14, 2017

In the nearly nine years we have been writing this column, we have never explicitly discussed the difference between “who” and “whom.”

One reason is that few people care anymore.

They haven’t cared for some time. As our predecessor, Evan Jenkins, wrote of “whom” in 1999:

A lot of smart people hate the word. It can sound stuffy, and more importantly, it’s very easy to get wrong. The great New York Times editor and language authority Theodore M. Bernstein, who almost certainly never got it wrong, nonetheless campaigned to “Doom Whom” (except after prepositions).

Nonetheless, Jenkins wrote, For anything approaching formal writing, ‘whom’ clearly will be with us for a good while longer.”

The end may be closer than we think. At a recent conference of college media advisers and their students, few that we questioned could correctly cite passages where “whom” had been used correctly or where “who” had been used incorrectly.

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“Does anyone even bother?” one adviser remarked. “It’s hard enough working on the ‘me/I’ problem.”

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Indeed, in a quiz given at that conference, two sentences were presented:

“Michael, Tania, Danisha and (I, me) are going to the movies.”

“(I, Me) and Danisha will be bringing the snacks.”

Most students correctly selected “I” in the first example. But most selected “me” in the second, when “I” is correct.

We didn’t ask about “who” or “whom” on the quiz because we know many people could care less. (“Could care less” is another one Evan Jenkins wrote about. It, too, has about reached its expiration date.) That college journalists and their advisers are not worried provides added evidence that the “who/whom” distinction is fading fast.

“Who” is a subject. “Whom” is an object. But in our fast-paced world, there often is not enough time to figure out whether something is a subject or an object, especially if you forgot how to do that. We often advocate a sort of test, where you flip the sentence around to determine whether you would use “he” or “him” in its place. If you would use “he,” it’s “who”; if “him,” then “whom.” Sexist though it is, it often works.

Take, for example, the common police story. “Police described the suspect as armed and dangerous” is pretty straightforward. But take the “armed and dangerous” phrase and put it elsewhere in the sentence, and confusion can arise. “The suspect, who/whom the police described as armed and dangerous …” If you make that phrase more like the original sentence, it becomes clear: The police described him as armed and dangerous. So the grammatically correct phrase should be “whom the police described.”

But what about “The suspect, who/whom the police said was armed and dangerous…”? You might think you want “whom,” because it’s almost the same as the earlier sentence. But no. “Police said the suspect was armed and dangerous” is the test phrase here. That translates to “police said he was armed and dangerous.” So the grammatically correct answer would be “The suspect, who the police said was armed and dangerous…”

Give up yet? So many have.

Unfortunately, many sentences are not quite as straightforward, and the “test” is not so easy to do. Instead, many writers unsure of their subjects and objects or distracted by the sentence structure will use “whom” in situations where they think it should be used, often when a writer is trying for a more educated tone.

The problem shows up most often in the corollary “whomever.” It appears that some writers believe “whoever” can’t start a sentence, so we end up with examples like “Whomever makes the best meal wins a prize.” Apply our little test, and you’ll see that “he makes the best meal,” not “him.” You need a subject there, not an object.

If you’re not sure whether you want “who” or “whom,” don’t worry too much and use what sounds, to your ear, natural—not fancy. Not a lot of people are going to notice. Of those who do, many won’t know who to complain to anyway. Or to whom.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.