When was the last time you found yourself getting hung up on using who or whom in a sentence? And how soon after that initial hot flash of panic from being unable to recall such basic grammar and your subsequent sigh of defeat did you just resign yourself to using “who” because it seemed to work?

Most of us have encountered this snag in syntax at one time or another—myself included. Because unlike most of what gets passed around on the Internet, who/whom confusion is real and widespread. Complicating matters is the contention by some grammar authorities to just go with “who” if you’re ever in doubt. And while a who-only solution may be acceptable for more informal writing, you can’t deny whom its rightful place in a sentence—the pronoun exists for a reason.

Luckily, distinguishing who and whom is pretty easy. All you have to do is read what follows and hope your onboard memory keeps the information readily accessible. Practice helps, too.

Let’s start with the basics. “Who” and “whom” are both pronouns, and they can be used as both interrogative pronouns (i.e., pronouns used in questions) and relative pronouns (i.e., pronouns that connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun). The difference is, “who” functions as a subject, while “whom” serves as an object. For example:

Who greased the conference room doorknobs?

Whom do we lock in the server room?

I don’t know who is coming to my thrice-weekly pity party.

I don’t know whom the project manager has invited to my thrice-weekly pity party.

Do you see how the who/whom usage differs in the four sentence examples? Let’s examine the first two. In sentence one, “Who” is an interrogative pronoun and the subject of the sentence. In other words, “Who” performs the action in the sentence: “Who” greased the doorknobs. Despite leading off the second sentence, the interrogative pronoun “Whom” is not the subject. It is not the performer of the action, but the receiver—the object. “We” is the subject: “we” lock “whom” in the server room. That’s why it’s whom, not who.

Meanwhile, “who” and “whom” in the second set of sentences serve as relative pronouns. But, as you now know, they play different roles within their respective worlds. In the first example, “who” acts as the subject of a relative clause (“I,” as in “I don’t know,” is the sentence subject). “Who” is coming to the “party.” Therefore, it’s who and not whom. In sentence two, the “project manager” is the subject of the relative clause and “whom” is the clause’s object (“I,” again, is the subject of the sentence). The “project manager” invited “whom” to the party.

See how that works? If it’s a subject—that is, the actor—the word is “who.” If it’s an object—the receiver—it’s “whom.”

If you’re still having trouble getting the hang of who/whom usage, you can employ a handy trick to help you get it right every time. All you need to do is enlist a quartet of personal pronouns—he, she, him, and her—into your sentence and perform a little rephrasing. If, after incorporating the aforementioned personal pronouns and recasting the sentence, the revised wording sounds correct, then you’ve probably got it right. Here again are those examples along with their personal-pronoun-fortified, rephrased siblings:

Who greased the conference room doorknobs?

She/he greased the conference room doorknobs.

Whom do we lock in the server room? We lock him/her in the server room.

For the next set of sentences, you need only revise the relative clause (ignore “I don’t know”).

I don’t know who is coming to my thrice-weekly pity party. She/he is coming to my thrice-weekly pity party.

I don’t know whom the project manager has invited to my thrice-weekly pity party.

The project manager has invited him/her to my thrice-weekly pity party.

And there you have it: your who/whom problem solved. But hold on a second. Remember how I mentioned earlier that some grammarians says you can forsake “whom” altogether? Well, now that you know the rule, I’ll teach you how to break it—and other laws of grammar, too. But not now; this post is done. We’ll engage our inner grammar fugitive next time.

Joe Ehrbar is a senior editor at SMITH.

Tags: grammar, Strategy and Intelligence