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'Who' vs. 'Whom': Important Concepts On the SAT Writing & Literature and ACT English Section

'Who' vs 'whom' tends to be a confusing topic for students. In today's article, we'll clear that up.


The technical difference between 'who' and 'whom'

'Who' and 'whom' are both relative pronouns, a word type used to refer to nouns mentioned previously. 'Who' and 'whom' are both used exclusively for people.


Here's the difference: 'who' is used to refer to the subject. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing implementing the action of the verb.


'Whom' refers to the object. The object of a sentence is the person or thing that receives the action of the verb.


Let's look at a few examples:


Example #1

Linda gave the boy an apple.



In this sentence, 'Linda' is the subject - she's the one giving the apple. 'Boy' is the indirect object, since he's the one receiving the apple.


Let's theorize that we don't know what the subject of the sentence is - that is, we don't know who's giving the apple. A grammatically correct question might then be:


'Who gave the boy an apple?'


We've replaced the subject - Linda - with "who." That is, "who" now serves as the subject. For that reason, the correct word is "who" and not "whom".


Alternatively, let's say we know that Linda is giving the apple, but we don't know who's receiving it. In that case, we could ask:


'To whom did Linda gave the apple?'


The correct word is now 'whom' and not 'who', since 'whom' refers to an object - the person receiving the apple that Linda is giving.


Of course, 'who' and 'whom' are not only used in questions. Any reference to the subject should get a 'who', and any reference to the object should get a 'whom'.


For example:


'The woman who gave the boy an apple was tall.'


'The boy to whom Linda gave the apple looked hungry.'



Let's look at another example:


Example #2

'The secretary called the student.'



As in the last example, the subject is the one doing the verb. The verb in this sentence is 'called', and the person doing the calling is 'the secretary'. So, 'the secretary' is the subject. The person who receives the call is 'the student', so 'the student' is the object.


Again, any references to the subject - that is, the secretary - use 'who':


'Who called the student?'

'The secretary who was here earlier called the student.'


References to the object - the student - use 'whom':


'Whom did the secretary call?'

'The boy whom the secretary called seemed upset.



Multi-clause sentences

The subject can change from clause to clause. That is, one sentence can contain several different subjects.


Let's look at two variations of Example #1. ('Linda gave the boy an apple.')


1. 'The boy to whom Linda gave the apple looked hungry.'


2. 'Linda gave the boy, who looked hungry, an apple.


In Sentence 1, 'whom' is used in the clause, 'Linda gave the apple.' In this clause, Linda is the subject because she's the one doing the action of the verb - giving. 'Whom' refers to the boy, the object.


In Sentence 2, 'who' again refers to the boy, but this time it's used in the clause, 'who looked hungry.' The person who looks hungry is the boy - that is, he's the subject of that clause. Therefore, 'who' and not 'whom' is correct.


There are a few useful tips for distinguishing when 'who' vs. 'whom' should be used, but they don't cover every situation. So it's important to understand the underlying principles involved.


Tip #1: Prepositions

Prepositions are words used before nouns / pronouns to show direction / time / location, etc. Some common prepositions include:


for, to, with, of, from, on, before, after, below, through



Almost with exception, prepositions are used for objects, not subjects.


Some examples:


'You went to the girl.'

'They eat with him every day.'

'He takes the chart from the doctor.'


In the above examples, 'the girl', 'him', and 'the doctor' are all the objects of their respective sentences. Each of them follows a preposition.


If we were to replace the nouns / pronouns with relative pronouns (who / whom), it might look like the following:


'To whom did you go?'

'With whom do they eat?'

'From whom does he take the chart?'


A sentence might use a preposition, but not directly before the object. For example, you might have the following sentence:


'Who / whom are you going with?'


When you see a phrase with who / whom which also contains a preposition, see if you can arrange the sentence so that the preposition precedes the relative pronoun. In this case, you can:


With who / whom are you going?



Since the preposition, 'with', can be placed before the relative pronoun, the relative pronoun almost certainly refers to an object. For this reason, the correct relative pronoun would be 'whom', not 'who':


With whom are you going?


The preposition tip isn't always useful, because sometimes objects don't require a preposition. For example:


'Whom did he find?'


The subject is 'he' and the object is 'whom', but there's no preposition to accompany it.



Tip #2: Regular Pronouns

In the common vernacular, we often don't use relative pronouns correctly. Specifically, many of us don't bother with 'whom', and use 'who' as a default even when it's not correct. Because of that, we don't have great intuition for when to use 'who' vs. when to use 'whom.' That's exactly why the writers of the SAT and ACT provide questions on this topic so frequently.


The good news is that there's a set of words almost exactly parallel to 'who' and 'whom', which we do use correctly on an everyday basis and have fantastic intuition for. This set of words is regular pronouns, which include among others the words 'he', 'she', 'they', 'him', 'her', and 'them'.


'He', 'she', and 'they' are used to refer to a subject.


'Him', 'her', and 'them' are used for an object.


When in doubt regarding the use of 'who' vs 'whom' in a sentence, try replacing it with a regular pronoun. If the relative pronoun was used in a question, use a regular pronoun in the answer.


Let's look at a few examples:


Example #1

'Who / whom did she give the ticket to?'



Answer:

'She gave the ticket to him.' (Or, 'She gave the ticket to her.' / 'She gave the ticket to them.')


The 'who' was replaced by 'him', not 'he.' This indicates that the relative pronoun refers to an object, not a subject. The correct phrase would be 'Whom did she give the ticket to?'


Note that we can use the preposition trick mentioned earlier. There's a preposition in this sentence ('to'), which can be moved so that it precedes the relative clause: 'To who / whom did she give the ticket?'


Since a preposition can be moved before the relative clause, the correct word is 'whom' and not 'who':


'To whom did she give the ticket?"



Example#2


'Who / whom does the judge believe?'


Answer (using a random pronoun):


'The judge believes her. (Or: 'The judge believes them', 'The judge believes him.')


The relative pronoun was replaced by an object pronoun, so the correct sentence is 'Whom does the judge believe?'




Example #3


'Who / whom ate the cake?'


Answer:


'She ate the cake.' (Or: 'He ate the cake', "They ate the cake.')


The relative pronoun is replaceable with an object pronoun, so the correct word is 'who':

'Who ate the cake?'



When relative pronouns are used in questions, it's relatively easy to replace them with prepositions. When they're used in phrases, it can get tricky. So this tip, like the last one, is useful but not foolproof.


Now let's look at some examples from practice tests.



Examples

Example #1

'The article goes on to suggest that the most valuable resources provided by coworking spaces are actually the people whom use them.'



Question #1

A) NO CHANGE

B) whom uses

C) who uses

D) who use (1)


The solution is D, 'who use.'


This sentence is complex, because it contains several subjects contained in various clauses: 'the article', 'the most valuable resources', and 'people.' But don't let that mislead you. Take a look at the clause where the relative pronoun is used: 'whom used them.'


The verb in this clause is 'use', and the thing doing the action of the verb - that is, the subject - is 'people': 'people whom use them.' 'Whom' in the clause refers to 'people', the subject, so the correct word is 'who'.


Example #2

'The lion dance requires the strength, grace, and coordination of two dancers, both of whom are almost completely hidden by the elaborate bamboo and papier-mâché lion costume that they maneuver.'


Question #2

A) NO CHANGE

B) of which both

C) both of them

D) both (2)



The answer is A), NO CHANGE. Note that 'whom' is preceded by a preposition, 'of', indicating that 'whom' is indeed the correct relative pronoun.


In addition, try replacing the relative pronoun with a phrase where you can use a regular pronoun. For example:


'both of whom are almost completely hidden' -->

'Both of them are almost completely hidden.'


Since the relative pronoun can be replaced by the object pronoun 'them', and not the subject pronoun 'they', the correct relative pronoun would indeed be 'whom' and not 'who.'


Note that the correct relative pronoun is 'whom' because 'whom' here serves as a descriptor of the word 'both.' That is, 'whom' refers to both, NOT directly to the 'two dancers.' Had the 'both' not been there, the correct word would have been 'who.' Let's take a look:


'The lion dance requires the strength, grace, and coordination of two dancers, who are almost completely hidden by the elaborate bamboo and papier-mâché lion costume that they maneuver.'


The relative pronoun here appears in the clause, 'who are almost completely hidden...' The verb is 'are', and the subject to which 'are' refers is the 'two dancers.' Since 'who' also refers to the dancers - that is, to the subject - it is indeed correct to use 'who' and not 'whom.'


For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. In coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style. For this reason, studying privately with a skilled coach is the best way to increase your test score.


Happy learning,

Tova