It’s been a while since I discussed a grammatical topic on my blog, so today I thought I’d address a problem area that arises quite often among writers. It concerns the use of the word who and its variations whom, whoever and whomever.
Grammatically speaking, who is a relative pronoun. The relative pronouns (who/whoever/which/that) relate groups of words to nouns or other pronouns – for example, “The writer who works the hardest usually achieves the most.” Here the word who connects or relates the subject, the writer, to the verb within the dependent clause (works).
One major source of confusion among writers is when they should use who and when whom. Of course, in spoken English today the word whom is seldom used, and many people simply use who in every context.
In written English, however, and formal English especially, the distinction is still preserved.
The rule is that who is used when it refers to the subject of a sentence, and whom when it refers to the object.
Often, the simplest way to decide which version is correct is to re-phrase the sentence so you choose between he (the subject form of the third person singular pronoun) and him (the object form). If you want him, write whom; if you want he, write who. The examples below should make this clearer.
Who do you think is responsible? (Do you think he is responsible?)
Tell the officer who has done this. (Tell the officer he has done this.)
Whom shall we ask to the party? (Shall we ask him to the party?)
Everybody knows whom I mean. (Everybody knows I mean him.)
Choosing between whoever and whomever can be even trickier. There are two rules to guide you here.
Rule 1: First of all, use the ever suffix when who or whom can fit into two clauses in the sentence.
Example: Give it to whoever/whomever asks for it first.
Give it to him. He asks for it first.
Rule 2: Now, to determine whether to use whoever or whomever, follow the rule below.
him + he = whoever
him + him = whomever
In the example above, the first clause contains him and the second one he. Following the rule above, this means that whoever is correct.
Give it to whoever asks for it first.
Here is a further example:
We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend.
The two clauses here are:
We will hire him. You recommend him
In this case, the first clause has him and the second also has him. The rule tells us that whomever is the correct form here.
We will hire whomever you recommend.
Even experienced writers and editors sometimes slip up over when to use whoever and when whomever. One reason may be that the word often follows a preposition such as to or from, and we are accustomed to anything following a pronoun taking the object form. (Give it to him. Take it from me. He’s with her.)
However, in a sentence such as “We will give the award to whoever performs best”, the object of the preposition to is not whoever but the clause “whoever performs best”, and whoever is the subject of this clause.
This means you should check any such instances carefully, using the rules set out above. As a final test of your skills, see if you can decide which form is correct in the sentences below. The asterisks can represent who, whom, whoever or whomever.
1. It doesn’t matter ***** you choose.
2. Do you know ***** is going to the conference?
3. She gave gifts to ***** she liked best.
4. ***** arrives first will win the first prize.
5. She asked me ***** I was with last night.
The correct answers can be found at the bottom of this post.
Even if (to sound more life-like) you choose to have your fictional characters say “who” rather than “whom”, it’s still important to understand the grammatical rules governing the use of these terms.
In my view, professional writers should always understand when they are breaking the rules of grammar and their reasons for doing so. Understanding the rules will also help you avoid the potentially more embarrassing mistake of using “whom” when actually “who” is correct.
I do hope you found this post helpful. As ever, if you have any queries, please feel free to post them below.
Quiz answers – 1. whom. 2. who. 3. whomever. 4. whoever. 5. whom.
- If you need a bit of help getting your English up to a publishable standard, my downloadable course Essential English for Authors may help. It’s a guide to the main things you need to know to ensure that your manuscript is taken seriously by agents and publishers and not rejected out of hand due to errors of grammar and punctuation. For more details click here.