Before the Vikings dramatically changed English, using whom was a perfectly acceptable English. However, now that grammatical case has almost entirely disappeared from the language, using whom is a strange-sounding holdover that many people don’t quite know how to handle. The general rule is that whom is an object pronoun while who is a subject pronoun, but if that doesn’t help you, don’t worry.
If you read this blog regularly, you may know this simple trick: anyplace you would write he (or she or they), you should write who, and anyplace you would write him (or her or them), you should write whom. This is a good general rule, but since actually writing with whom is a little more nuanced, we’re going to go over this in more detail.
Instead of substituting directly, you’ll usually need to rearrange the sentence a little. Suppose you’re writing the following sentence but are unsure whether to begin it using who or using whom.
- Did Jean see at the park?
Obviously, you would say neither He did you see at the park? nor Him did you see at the park?, so figure out whether you would use he or him to answer the question.
- Jean saw him at the park.
In your answer, you would say him, so in your question, you should technically write whom, as follows:
- Whom did Jean see at the park?
For another example, look at this sentence:
- The repentant thieves apologized to the man from they had stolen.
Again, it wouldn’t make complete sense to insert either he or him into that blank. Again, you’ll have to do some rearranging. Try this:
- The repentant thieves apologized to the man because they had stolen from.
Intuitively, you probably know that him belongs in that blank. Therefore, whom belongs in the blank in the original sentence.
Use Your Judgment
Now, because whom is fading away, writing whom may sound inappropriately stuffy in some contexts. The late William Safire, who wrote about language for The New York Times, basically instructed his audience to write around the issue: “When whom is correct, recast the sentence.” Following this advice, we might render the above sentences as follows:
- Which person did Jean see at the park?
The repentant thieves apologized to the man for stealing from him.
The second one looks fine, although people like linguist Steven Pinker would argue that the first isn’t great. Which person implies that Jean saw only one person (while who/whom would leave the number open), and because it contains two words instead of the original one, it violates the maxim that writers should use as few words as possible.
So, pretty much, when whom is grammatically correct, you have three choices. You can use whom, which can sound pretentious but which demonstrates technical knowledge of traditional grammar. You can use who, which violates a technical rule but which is gaining acceptability due to its widespread use. Or, you can recast the sentence, possibly using which person (or which people), which specifies a number of people and is slightly wordy, but which allows you to avoid the stuffy whom and the technically incorrect who.
You need to use your judgment about which option makes the most sense in a given situation. If the context is extremely formal, whom may be best; if it is extremely informal, who may be the way to go. Following Safire’s rule, in my opinion at least, is usually the safest approach.