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The mystery of ‘who’ and ‘whom’… What is whom and when do I use it? The answer is surprisingly easy!

If you are confused with when you should use ‘who’ and when you should use ‘whom’, then you are not alone!  You will be happy to know that ‘whom’ is only really used today in formal written English. Which means that when you are speaking English, or even writing in normal registers of English, you can avoid it completely!  Here’s my guide to who and whom:

Speaking

Nobody really uses whom when they are speaking, it sounds very old fashioned. So you don’t have to worry about it at all here!

Writing

In non-formal registers of writing, the rules for who and whom are normally not followed in present day English.  So you don’t need to worry about it here either!

Just be careful with certain sentences…

When speaking and writing in a less formal context you don’t need to think about whom, you can just use who instead.  But there are a few occasions where you need to think about the word order of your sentences.  This is important.

For example take a look at this, incredibly formal sentence with whom:

‘This is the man with whom I often speak’

In normal writing and speaking you wouldn’t use whom, but is isn’t possible just to use ‘who’.  You cannot say this is the man with who I often speak‘.  For any construction with a preposition – with, without, by, for, about – you have to use this construction:

‘This is the man who I often speak with’ 

So here you just use who and you take the preposition to the end of the section of the sentence.  Here are some more examples:

‘John is the person who I bought the present for‘ NOT ‘John is the person for who I bought the present’

‘This is the woman who the book is about‘  NOT ‘This is the woman about who the book is’

This is important to know, because it is very likely that this is different to how it works many European languages.

Formal Writing

If you are writing formally (essays, tests or formal letters for example), you need to know when to use whom.

The basic rule is that who refers back to the subject of the sentence, and whom refers back to the object of the sentence.

So how do you know whether are referring back to the subject or the object of the sentence?

Here you have 2 options:

Option 1 (easy)

It is very likely that you have an equivalent word for ‘whom’ in your own language.  In fact it is likely that you will have many translations for ‘whom’ in your own language.  Simply look in a dictionary for the translations of whom in your language.  When you want to write a sentence with who or whom (remember this is FORMAL WRITING we are talking about here), quickly translate it into your own language, and if your language equivalent translates to ‘whom’ in English and not ‘who’, then you should use whom.

This sounds very basic, but it is the quickest way to give you the right result 99.9% of the time. It is very likely that you have an equivalent of who and whom in your own language, so this method is actually easier than it is for a native English speaker to learn the difference between these two words! Remember you only need this when you are writing formal English, so you have time to think about a translation in your own language and work out which word you need.

Option 2 (easy but with one complicated exception)

Write the sentence out, for example:

‘The man who/whom I saw yesterday’

Look at the part after ‘who/whom’, if you have a subject and verb after ‘who/whom’ then you need to use ‘whom’ in formal written English:

‘The man who/whom         I             saw            yesterday

                                                 (subject)       (verb)

As you can see, there is a subject and verb after ‘who/whom’, so in this case you should use ‘whom’:

This is the man whom I saw yesterday’

Here is an example without a subject:

‘The man who/whom     was      on the television’

                                                 (verb)

As you can see, no subject here, just the verb after who/whom so you just use ‘who’ here:

‘The man who was on television’ 

The problem with this rule is one exception.

If you insert any reporting verb e.g ‘I said..’, ‘we thought…’, ‘he believed…’ immediately after ‘who/whom’, then you should still just use ‘who’.  (See a list of reporting verbs here). Take a look at this sentence, the same as the one above, just with ‘I said..’ inserted after ‘who’:

‘The man who I said       was      on the television’

                                      (verb after who)

Other examples include:

‘The man who we believed was on the television’

‘The man who John thought was on the television’

Other times you must use whom in formal writing

If ‘who/whom’ comes after any preposition, it should always be whom - with whom, without whom, after whom, for whom. This follows the same rule above anyway:

‘I am very grateful for this woman, without whom I would never have survived’

‘The people for whom the book was written’

Remember, this is only used in formal writing! For all other forms of English, the preposition goes to the end of the sentence, like in the examples I showed earlier in the post.

Also, you must use ‘whom’ with phrases like ‘all of whom..’, ‘some of whom…’, most of whom…’, ‘none of whom…’

‘I have many work colleagues, most of whom I really enjoy working with.’

‘I spoke to many people on holiday, all of whom spoke English very well.’

Quite a long post there!  I hope this has made things a bit clearer! If you have any problems with your grammar, feel free to email me at david@fluencyspace.com, or message me on Skype at live:fluencyspace! Also if you have any other questions about English I’m happy to answer your emails or I will write a post about it, keep the emails coming! Check out more useful business English grammar here!

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 David Cox

 Fluency Space

 Make the world your fluency space. Business English for career and life success

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