I love words. There’s pretty much no way around that. Try as I did to resist the unnatural urges, I am powerless to resist. As soon as somebody rattles off an interesting word I feel compelled to immediately consult the nearest dictionary or — in this day and age — my phone, and determine the meaning and origin of it. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. Some might call me a nerd, others might call me a… Nup. ‘Nerd’ is about all I can think of. ‘Word geek’ maybe. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t view these as derogatory. I love words too much to care what people say about us. I’m getting creepy and weird now, so let’s move on.
Tasked with writing a blog post that could be about anything at all, I immediately went to words. Yup, that’s how interesting I am. But of all the words to choose from, I found it difficult to settle. However, I recently discovered a handy little tip for a set of words that are regularly misunderstood: who and whom.
I want to start by saying that the word whom is steadily phasing out of modern English usage, so if your immediate response was ‘but I never use whom!’ then don’t worry. You don’t need to. But if you’re like me then every now and then you’ll say ‘who’ and something at the back of your mind will start tugging away, confident that something wasn’t quite right with what you just did; you just can’t put your finger on it.
The most common use of the word ‘whom’ is in the phrase ‘to whom’. That is, most people that are aware of the word might commonly use it in the following conversation:
“Do you have my DVD?”
“Nah, sorry. I gave it to somebody.”
This is the correct usage of the word, and most of us subconsciously know this. If you said ‘to who’ then you’re not going to get a slap on the wrist. People don’t mind that much. But, formally, the word ‘whom’ is the correct word to use, and I’ll explain why.
Put simply, ‘who’ is used when it is acting as the subject of a verb and ‘whom’ is used when it is the object of a verb. To demonstrate this subject/object distinction, I’ll use a fairly simple example. Take the following sentence:
Jimmy threw the ball.
Now in this instance, ‘Jimmy’ is the subject and ‘the ball’ is the object. The sentence treats Jimmy as the main subject of the sentence and talks about what Jimmy is doing. The ball is something he used. Now, that all seems nice and simple, but let’s look at another example:
The ball was thrown by Jimmy.
This looks like it might be the same as the last sentence, right? Jimmy is still doing the throwing and the ball is still being thrown. But it’s not the same. In this sentence ‘the ball’ is the subject and ‘Jimmy’ is the object. The sentence is primarily concerned with what is happening to the ball, rendering it the subject of the sentence.
Now this all translates readily into ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Remember before that I said ‘who’ was the subject and ‘whom’ was the object? Well, let’s turn those sentences into questions as if we don’t know the identity of the thrower. They become:
Who threw the ball?
The ball was thrown by whom?
You can see here that when Jimmy was the subject, we replace it with ‘who’ but when he was the object we replace it with ‘whom’.
But don’t panic! That all seems confusing, I know, and figuring out what the heck is the subject and object can get mighty confusing. Instead, there is a much easier way to determine which one you should be using, and I’ll look into that now.
‘Who’ and ‘whom’ are always part of a question, right? When somebody is asking ‘who’ or ‘whom’ they want an answer. You can use this to sort of reverse the order and, in doing so, determine the correct form. By that, I mean we will determine how the question would be answered.
The simple rule here is that ‘who’ is correct if it can be answered with a ‘he’ or ‘she’, and ‘whom’ is correct if it can be answered with a ‘him’ or ‘her’. Before I start to confuse you too much, let’s put this into an example:
Who threw the ball?
could be answered with
She threw the ball
That means the word ‘who’ is correct in this instance. Let’s look at the other form.
The ball was thrown by who?
could be answered with
The ball was thrown by her
That means we should be using ‘whom’ in this instance, and writing the sentence as ‘The ball was thrown by whom?’ So, to phrase it as a general rule, we have:
If answered with he/she use who
If answered with him/her use whom
Remember, it’s critical that you phrase the answer in exactly the same way as the question. That is, if the question is ‘the ball was thrown by whom?’ your answer must start with ‘the ball was thrown by’. For this rule to work you really just want to substitute the who/whom with he/she/him/her. This won’t always be possible if you have a particularly obscure question, but try to make it as similar as possible.
As a final note, to anyone that’s sitting there going “but what if the answer to the question is ‘they’ or ‘them’?” then don’t panic. Almost every question can be answered with a singular pronoun. You’ll find that even if the correct answer is ‘they’ or ‘them’, ‘he’ or ‘she’ could still be applicable.
Well, that’s me for the day. I hope you found that thoroughly enthralling. I’ll be back for more wordy wisdom another day.