What’s the difference between who and whom?

What’s the difference between who and whom?

by Leona Quigley

Updated December 2, 2022

The pronoun “who” is used far more frequently in English than “whom”, but when should one use the puzzling and formal word “whom”? To put it simply “who” acts as the subject in a sentence, whilst “whom” acts as an object. Easier said than done perhaps. Even for native English speakers, knowing when to use “who” or “whom” can be confusing. Most people don’t often use “whom” in spoken English, at least not in casual conversation. If you are writing or speaking formally, however, you will need to know how to use both words correctly. So here is our quick guide to the correct use of “who” and “whom”.

Learn languages at your pace

“Who” and “whom” as interrogative pronouns

“Who” and “whom” are both used as interrogative pronouns; that is to say they are question words, which stand in for the noun you are asking about in the sentence. They refer to persons only, not to things.

Who as subject

  • Who is buying the food and drinks for the party? – Joe is buying them.
  • Who cleaned up the apartment? – Joe was so kind and did it.
  • And who is Joe? – Joe is the new friend I was telling you about.

As you can see in these examples, you must use “who”, and never “whom” when the person referred to (Joe in the above examples) is the subject (the actor or doer) of the sentence. 

Who/whom as object

  • Who/whom did you meet at the party? I met Alfie.
  • Who/whom did you give the glasses to? To whom did you give the glasses? I gave them to Alfie.
  • Who/whom did you pay for the drinks? I paid Alfie. He works at the local off-license.
  • Who/whom did you help to wash the glasses? I helped Alfie to wash the glasses. 

Strictly speaking, you should use “whom” when referring to the object of the sentence, which is Alfie in the above sentences. However, in everyday spoken English, you would rarely hear someone use “whom”. In the examples above, you would just use “who” in ordinary conversation. 

However, people do usually use the ‘whom’ after the preposition, as in when a sentence is begun with “to whom”, “with whom” or “for whom”, etc.  

  • With whom did you dance?
  • To whom did you give the glasses?
  • For whom did you write the poem?

So if you are beginning a sentence with “to whom”, “for whom”, “with whom” etc, it sounds better to use “whom”. But in English, it’s common to move the preposition to the end – e.g. who did you give the glasses to

Learn languages at your pace

“Who” and “whom” as relative pronouns

“Who” and “whom” are also used as relative pronouns, meaning words that introduce a dependent/relative clause.

Who as subject

Once again, “who” is used for the sentence subject, as in the following examples:

  • My friend who cleaned the apartment refused to let me pay for dinner.
  • The boy who bought the food and drinks for the party is my friend, Joe.

Who/whom as object

  • The girl who/m he employs is always complaining about her long working hours. (The girl he employs is always complaining)
  • The girl to whom the boss gave a bonus works long hours. 

“Whom” is the correct form as she is the object of the relative clause, but is not usually used in the first sentence. In the second example, ‘whom’ would be used as it follows a preposition – to whom, for whom, with whom, etc.

Puzzling pronouns

We hope you now have a fairly good understanding of the use of “who” and “whom” in English. Keep in mind that “who” is always a subject pronoun and “whom” is always an object pronoun and soon you will be able to use them intuitively. With some practice you will be using it as naturally as a native speaker, and possibly even better, as many native English speakers will not be aware of the grammar rules you have learned here.

Learn languages at your pace

Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

Related articles