For such a small word, “whom” causes a lot of heartache. On the one hand, “whom” can feel like an affectation—the verbal equivalent of holding out one’s pinkie while holding a teacup. On the other hand, it’s easy to get “whom” wrong—the verbal equivalent of holding out one’s pinkie while spilling tea all over one’s pinafore.

In today’s episode of The Habit, I will attempt to provide a straightforward answer to the question of when to use who (or whoever) and when to use whom (or whomever). Unfortunately, the problem is complicated. We will start with the distinction between the nominative and the objective case (which comes naturally for a native speaker). From there we will get into the grammar of adjective clauses and noun clauses (which comes much less naturally).

The Nominative Case and the Objective Case

Every personal pronoun in English has an objective case and a nominative case:

Nominative CaseObjective Case

When you use a personal pronoun as the subject of a clause, you use the nominative case. If you use a pronoun as a direct object, an indirect object, or the object of a preposition, you use the objective case. This is not something you get wrong very often at all. Nobody accidentally says, “Give I the ball” or “Give the ball to I” or “Me will give he the ball in a minute.” 

Sometimes people get the case wrong in compounds, as in “Linda and mewent to the party” or “Ahmed invited Linda and I to the party.” That’s an easy fix, though. When choosing a pronoun to use in a compound, just use the pronoun that would sound right if it were by itself instead of part of a compound. Unless you’re Cookie Monster or Tarzan, you wouldn’t say “Me went to the party.” So you know to say “Linda and I went to the party.” Nor would you say, “Ahmed invited I to the party.” So you know to say “Ahmed invited Linda and me to the party.” 

My point is that your instincts almost always steer you right when it comes to pronoun case. One exception is the predicate nominative, which is supposed to be in nominative case. Technically, you’re supposed to say, “It is I” rather than “It is me.” But when I say “It is I,” I can hardly resist saying “It is I, Dahling,” and reaching to adjust my cravat. And when somebody on the phone says “May I speak with Jonathan Rogers?” I can’t bring myself to say “This is he,” even though I know it’s technically correct. I just avoid the personal pronoun altogether and say “This is Jonathan,” or possibly, “You have that pleasure already…Dahling.”

Another major area in which you can’t trust your grammatical instincts is who and whom.

Adjective and Noun Clauses

Who and whom belong to a small-ish class known as relative pronouns. Relative pronouns introduce adjective clauses and noun clauses (which I will explain in a minute). Seven of them can introduce both adjective clauses and noun clauses; there are eight more that can only introduce noun clauses, as you can see in the chart below. (For what it’s worth, even though the w-words in the left column can introduce either adjective clauses or noun clauses, they usually signal adjective clauses. The relative pronoun that can really go either way.)

Relative Pronouns that Introduce Adjective OR Noun Clauses:Additional Relative Pronouns that
ONLY Introduce Noun Clauses:

The who/whom and whoever/whomever pairs are the only relative pronouns that distinguish between the nominative and objective cases. So you can forget about the other eleven relative pronouns for the remainder of this letter. 

We are now approaching the big question at the center of the issue: If you can almost always trust your instincts to get the case right on personal pronouns, why can’t you trust your instincts to get who and whom right? The problem is two-fold at least, and either of the two branches of the problem is more than enough to trip you up thoroughly:

  • Problem 1: The relative pronoun straddles the main clause and the subordinate clause. It is mightily tempting to choose your case based on where the relative pronoun sits in main clause, but the ONLY thing that matters is the pronoun’s role in the subordinate clause (that is, the adjective clause or noun clause) to which it belongs.
  • Problem 2: Thanks to a peculiarity of English grammar, it’s not immediately obvious what role the relative pronoun plays in the subordinate clause.

The Clause-Straddling Tendency of the Relative Pronoun
Problem 1 is actually two problems, because the relative pronoun straddles one way in adjective clauses and it straddles another way in noun clauses. I should probably explain both. 

An adjective clause is a clause that modifies a noun. Here are a couple of examples (the adjective clause is in italics):

  1. The clowns who tumbled out of the little car were hilarious.
  2. I inherited this cat from the woman who lived here before me.
  3. The public figure whom I miss the most is Lil Sebastian.

In each of these sentences, the relative pronoun who or whom comes immediately after the noun it modifies. And that noun is the antecedent for the relative pronoun. However, the relative pronoun also fills a grammatical role in the adjective clause. In the first two examples, the pronoun (or, you might say, the antecedent of the pronoun) is the subject in the adjective clause: the clowns tumbled, the woman lived. In the third example, the pronoun (or the antecedent) is the direct object of the adjective clause: I miss the public figure.

That’s what I mean when I say the relative pronoun straddles the main clause and the adjective clause. It reaches back to its antecedent noun in the main clause, but it plays a grammatical role in its own clause. 

Now, it would be perfectly logical to assume that the role played by the antecedent noun in the main clause would determine the case of the relative pronoun. But it doesn’t. In Sentence 2 above, woman is the object of the preposition from, but the corresponding pronoun is the nominative-case who. In Sentence 3, public figure is a subject, but its corresponding pronoun is the objective-case whom. (In sentence 1, the nominative-case who has thesubjectclowns for an antecedent, but the fact that it is nominative-case has nothing to do with its antecedent.)

Moving on to noun clauses… A noun clause can perform any role a noun can perform in a sentence. It can be a subject, a direct object, an indirect object, or an object of a preposition. Here are a couple of examples, with the noun clauses in italics:

  1. Whoever made this pie is a genius. (Noun clause is the subject.)
  2. Somebody should give a medal to whoever invented pita chips. (Noun clause is the object of the preposition to.)

Again, note that the role played by the noun clause within the main clause does not determine the case of the relative pronoun. In Sentence 2, the noun clause serves as a direct object, but it starts with the nominative-case who.

It takes a certain amount of grammatical sophistication to recognize a noun clause and to identify its role in a sentence. But even that much grammatical sophistication doesn’t give you what you need to decide between who and whom.

Determining the Role of the Relative Pronoun in the Subordinate Clause
Your brilliant instincts regarding nominative and objective case in the main clause derive from the reliability of the subject-verb-object word order in independent clauses in English. Whether you know it or not, you are exceedingly good at identifying subjects and objects because, with very few exceptions, subjects come first, then verbs, then objects. (By the way, this is why it seems natural to use the objective case with predicate nominatives–because, like direct and indirect objects, a predicate nominative comes after the verb.)

But the reliability of English word order gets upended in adjective clauses and noun clauses. Within the the clause, a relative pronoun can perform any function a noun can perform. But no matter what function it performs, the relative pronoun comes at the beginning of the clause. So you have to rely on logic, not word order, to determine the role performed by  the pronoun within the subordinate clause. But once you get that far, it actually isn’t terribly hard to get the rest of the way.

Here’s the two-step process:

  • Step 1: Find the verb in the subordinate clause. Every clause has a verb, and a verb in a subordinate clause looks just like a verb in an independent clause. Find it, and you will probably know what to do with the relative pronoun. In the clause whoever made this pie, the verb is made. In the clause whom I miss, the verb is miss.
  • Step 2: Find the subject by asking who or what is the actor performing the verb. If the pronoun is the subject of the verb, use the nominative-case who. If the pronoun is not the subject of the verb, it will almost certainly be an object (either a direct object or the object of a preposition, or rarely an indirect object) and should therefore be the objective-case whom. In the clause whoever made this pie, the subject is whoever (nominative case). In the clause whom I missI is the subject and the objective-case whomever is the direct object. 

Once you get used to the idea that a) the subordinate clause’s role within the main clause has no bearing on whether you should use who or whom, and b) you have to determine the function of the relative pronoun in the subordinate clause, and c) if the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause, it should be who and if it’s anything else it should be whom, it isn’t actually all that hard to choose between who and whom.

When prepositions are involved, who and whom can still be a little tricky, since sometimes the pronoun itself is the object of a preposition (in which case it is always whom), and sometimes a whole noun clause is the object of the preposition (in which case you might need who or you might need whom). I’m afraid wading into that matter might be beyond the scope of this letter.

When you consider the complexity involved, perhaps it’s not surprising that whom seems to be dying. But I think you’ve got what it takes to help keep it alive

Photo by Oleg Guijinsky on Unsplash

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