When to Use "Who" vs. "Whom"

Learn when to use "who" versus "whom" from Gotham Writers' Workshop instructor Stephanie Paterik in this Howcast grammar video.


Have you ever been talking to someone and found yourself needing to use the word who or whom, but you're not sure which is the correct word? Well, I'm going to let you know how you can decide which word to use. First we need a little bit of a grammar lesson. To understand the difference between who and whom, we have to understand the difference between a subject and an object. Well here's a famous example. Let's look at the sentence, "For whom does the bell toll?" To figure out which is the subject and which is the object, I suggest starting with the verb first. So here our verb is the word toll, because that's the action. So then who or what is our actor, or the subject? Well that would be the bell.

So now we've got our subject and our verb. The next part of speech we need to find in the sentence is the object. And the object, essentially, is a noun or pronoun that's receiving the action. So we have to ask ourselves who is the action falling on? Well in this case, the bell is tolling for whom, making this our object.

So something that's really important to remember is that who is a subject. That means whenever you see the word who, it's driving the sentence. It's performing the action in the sentence. Whom, on the other hand, is an object, which means it's not the actor in the sentence. It's receiving the action. So to decide whether you need who or whom, you have to decide if you're looking for a subject or an object. Let's revisit the example, "For whom does the bell toll?" Again, we're using whom because it is the object of the sentence. I'm going to teach you something I like to call the M trick, which can help you decide whether you need to use the word who or whom. Substitute the word him, which also has an M.

So remember whom and him, because they both have an M, function the same way in the sentence. And who and he, neither of which have an M, function the same way in a sentence. So in this case, you can plug this in. For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for him. Him and whom both have an M, so you know that you're using the right version. So I've given you an example of how to decide when to use the word whom. I'd also like to give you an example of when you might use the word who. Let's say we want to re-phrase our sentence. Instead of asking, "For whom does the bell toll," let's ask, "Who rings the bell?" Well, in this case, let's find our verb. It's rings. And since rings is our action, we now want to find our actor, so in this case our actor or our subject is who. So now we know that we're dealing with a word that is the subject or the actor of the sentence. It's performing the central action. In the last sentence, we had an object. It was receiving the central action. So that's why in this sentence, we choose the word who.

We don't say, "Whom rings the bell?" We say, "Who rings the bell," because we need a subject. And you can use my M trick to make sure that you're using the correct word in this sentence, as well. Let's turn it into a statement, and let's substitute the word he for who and see if it still sounds right. He rings the bell. That makes sense. It wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to say, "Him rings the bell." I hope that this makes it a little clearer the next time you'r trying to decide whether to use the word who or whom.

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