Who vs. whom

“Learning a foreign language helps open your eyes to how your own language works.” This is one of those marketing hooks that we hear all the time from language teachers to encourage people to branch out linguistically – but it is actually true. If I hadn’t studied other languages, I wouldn’t get so wound up about grammar mistakes in English.

Who vs. whom is a classic debate. When should we use ‘whom’, or should we even use it at all? Well, here’s the answer:

When should we use ‘whom’?
Firstly, in the highest possible degree of layman terms, we use ‘who’ when talking about the person doing something, and ‘whom’ about the person having something done to them. Sorry if that sounds dirty, but here are some examples:

Who saw you? It was the girl who saw me.” The girl is the one doing the seeing, therefore we use ‘who’.
Whom did you see? It was the girl whom I saw.”  I saw the girl, so it is the girl being seen rather than doing the seeing. So, we use ‘whom’.

Secondly, we use ‘whom’ with a preposition (words like ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘with’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘under’, etc.). So: “the boy whom you wrote the letter to“, although that opens up another can of worms on whether we can end a sentence with a preposition (but we’ll save that for another week).

If this is still confusing, there’s a handy rule to help. You can substitute ‘he’ or ‘she’ for ‘who’, and you can use ‘him’ or ‘her’ for ‘whom’, i.e.:

  • Who went to school with you? He went to school with you.
  • Whom did you go to school with? – You went to school with him.

Do we actually need to use ‘whom’?
Using ‘whom’ sounds old fashioned to most, and many don’t use it at all, so do we still need it? Yes and no. No, because we don’t really need it in grammatical terms. We still understand the whole meaning of the sentence without it. Besides, language changes all the time; we don’t use ‘thou’ or ‘thee’ anymore, so why should we hang on to ‘whom’?

It’s all about style – it is still used to indicate what kind of register of language we want to use: we often use ‘whom’ if we are using high-register, formal, written English – probably because it is seen as old-fashioned. Read The Independent or The Times and you will still see ‘whom’ widely used. Equally, we avoid using ‘whom’ in informal, conversational English. We hardly use it when speaking and sometimes we don’t use it when we’re writing, just read The Sun for example.

We can therefore deduce that ‘whom’ is not completely useless as we can use it to establish what kind of a relationship we have with the person we are speaking to (or rather with the person whom we are speaking to – but I do not wish to establish such formality with the readers of this blog).

So no, we don’t need to use ‘whom’, but you can use it to sound elevated and to talk like sir. 

So is that 1-0 to us commoners over the grammarians?
Well, if you want to put it that way. I don’t feel that the militants have a case when they try to force others to use ‘whom’ for the sake of it when its grammatical function is redundant.I could make a very long list of grammatical structures that we have stopped using over the past century. That’s a natural process in language, something which some users of Twitter need to understand – the ones who kick off about Twitter’s suggestions of “Who to follow”.

English is a particularly dynamic language. We lack complicated, unnecessary elements of grammar that our neighbouring languages have retained. We don’t have adjective endings like you see in other Germanic and Romance languages. Nor do our nouns change depending on their grammatical role in the sentence, like they do in Slavic languages. What English learners love most about the language is that we have minimal conjugation, that is changing verbs to fit the person (whom) we are talking about and which tense we use. Just look at French:

I work……………………….Je travaille
You work. (singular)…………Tu travailles
He works…………………….Il travaille
We work……………………..Nous travaillons
You work (plural)…………….Vous travaillez
They work……………………Ils travaillent

Only one change here for English, but six varieties in French. Then six more each for each tense. English has had a metaphorical clean up of its bedroom and thrown out all the old junk that it doesn’t need anymore, where French has just left its bedroom in a state, hoarding a load of old junk it doesn’t need.

Does that mean I don’t have to stick to grammar rules in English.
No. Absolutely not. It’s “should have” not “should of”. ‘Your’ and ‘you’re’ mean different things. And you don’t use an apostrophe when making words plural – it’s 1960s, not 1960’s, and chips instead of chip’s. That ends this post as Doctor Whom is on TV.