Using ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’

Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally posted on Kali’s Bookshelf on Blogger in February 2020.

           Every day brings new examples of English’s fluidity. Sometimes the change comes swiftly. Other changes take many years and face much resistance. One change that has been slowly coming is the usage of who and whom. One side declares that whom is dead and that only who should be used. The other side stubbornly insists that whom is still relevant enough to be used in modern English. The question is which side is in the right. Which word should one use in their writing and speech?


            Before we can make a certain decision about these two words, we need to do some research. It is important to understand how to use the words and what their purpose has been in the past. Both who and whom are pronouns but serve slightly different purposes. Who completes several different jobs, but as a pronoun it acts as the subject. As a slight variation, whom is an objective pronoun meaning that who becomes whom when it acts as an object in a sentence. For example, you can say “I asked my friend who gave him the gift.” In this case, who is the subject of the clause “who gave him the gift.” However, you can also say “To whom did you give the gift?” Whom is the object in the phrase “to whom.”


            Both who and whom have existed in English since before the 12th century according to Merriam-Webster[1]. They have also seen relatively little change in their meaning. The spelling has gone through a transformation as the language moved into Middle and then Modern English[2]. If anything, these two pronouns have proven a great tenacity. As was the case for many words, grammarians of the 18th century had much to say about their usage. The grammarians of the following century declared that whom was dying out. Unlike with other words, English speakers largely ignored these grammarians and continued to use both words as they always have.


            That brings us back to our original question. Which word is the correct one to use? The experts of today see it in two ways. One side says that whom is a valid word but is tricky to use. Thanks to the aforementioned grammarians, many English speakers are out of practice concerning the correct way to use it. Therefore, people either avoid the word at all costs or use it everywhere. If one can learn to use the two words in the right context, there is no problem with them.


            However, other experts say that it shouldn’t matter. Because people don’t understand how to use it, the word should be allowed to die. They believe that who can easily replace its counterpart and clear up the confusion once and for all. Besides, these experts say that whom is pretentious and gives the wrong tone in most forms of writing and speech today.


            Who should we listen to? I honestly believe that it is a matter of personal choice. If you like having separate words, you should use them. Only be careful that you are using them correctly. You’ll be doing yourself no favors if you continually use whom in the wrong context. You should also consider tone. Sometimes, whom might be correct but causes a sentence to sound clunky because it doesn’t match the tone of the surrounding text. If you’re of the party that wishes whom would disappear, using who is perfectly fine. That is part of the beauty of the English language. It is fluid and gives much leeway towards a person’s style and personality.


[1] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “whom,” accessed February 9, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/whom.

[2] Ibid.

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