One major English grammar challenge is figuring out when to use either who or whom. A good number of professional communicators (myself included) have done fairly decent impressions of owls as they glare at their computer screens trying to decide which of these two pronouns sounds right in a particular sentence.
Trouble is, what sounds right and what is right can be very different. So, to help you with this common conundrum, here are the rules.
The Basic Rules
Who refers to the subject (one who acts) of a sentence or clause while whom is the object (what/or is acted upon). Consider the following sentences:
The woman who volunteered to oversee the festival is experienced in event marketing.
He was the man to whom I spoke last night
In the first sentence, the woman acts (that is,volunteers to oversee). Therefore, who is the appropriate pronoun. In the second sentence, the phrase I spoke contains the subject and verb of the sentence. Therefore the man is the object of spoke in that sentence and so takes the pronoun whom.
Subordinate Clause Rules
Things get a little more complicated when the who/whom issue arises in a subordinate clause (a group of related words that includes a subject and a verb but does not provide a complete thought on their own). Take a look at the following examples:
I forgot who won the game last week.
The woman whom he loved has gone away.
In the first sentence, the subordinate clause is who won the game last week. The pronoun who is the subject of the verb won although the entire clause is the object of the verb forget. In the second sentence, woman is the object of the verb loved.
How to Apply the Rules
Grammar experts suggest that we can determine whether to use who or whom by substituting the personal pronouns he/him or she/her. If he or she is the correct substitution, the proper choice is who. If him or her is appropriate, use whom. You may have to slightly alter the word order to see which substitution works:
Sawyer is the man with whom I play golf every Saturday. (I play golf with him.)
The analysts differed as to who they thought might win. (They differed on whether she might win.)
When to Break the Rules
I started off by saying that what’s grammatically correct and what sounds right can be very different. Whom do you recommend? is correct since whom is the object of recommend.
However, the sentence sounds … off. People just don’t speak like that.
If you’re using informal English in your piece, incorrect grammar sometimes enhances the conversational flow. In fact, MarketingProfs recently wrote about this technique. So when writing informally, you’d use who do you recommend? since it sounds better.
Also, when a preposition follows its object, informal English allows for who rather than whom as in Who is the gift for?
That last bit of advice does not mean that the previous who/whom rules are unimportant. You’ll be doing formal pieces, but with the more informal stuff, you have the freedom to make a judicious choice.