who and whom

who and whom
who and whom
1. Who is used as a relative pronoun (The woman who saw you) and as an interrogative (Who is there?), and whom is, formally, its objective form (The woman whom you saw / Whom did you see?). In all these uses who (or whom) refers to a person or to several people, but as a relative pronoun who can informally refer to an animal or to an organization regarded in terms of its members (The committee, who meet on Friday,…).
2. In practice, whom is in decline and is increasingly replaced by who (or that), especially in conversational English. (This is not a new development; examples can be found from Shakespeare onward.) In the examples given in the preceding paragraph, it would be more natural to say Who did you see?, and in the one before it The woman who you saw or The woman that you saw or The woman you saw (for the omission of the pronoun, see relative clauses 2).
3. When the relative pronoun is governed by a preposition, a construction with whom now seems formal, or even over-formal, and an alternative construction with who and the preposition at the end is the usual option in everyday language: (formal)

• They…argue about a man called Simpkins of whom the poet is jealous —Encounter, 1987

• Lord Jenkins likened this stance to countries…‘who in the two world wars have waited to see which side was winning before deciding with whom to ally themselves’ —Times, 1999

• (informal) What did she know of his life, who he went to bed with? —Iris Murdoch, 1993

• Mentzer didn't name any of these companies specifically, but it's clear who he was thinking of when we asked him about such developments —Register, 2003 [OEC].

A mixed style sometimes occurs, but is not ideal:

• There were other people whom I would have liked to speak to —G. Butler, 1983.

4. The same distinction of formality applies in the choice between who and whom used as an interrogative pronoun in questions: (formal)

• Whom should we support in the present fluid situation? —Bulletin of the American Academy, 1990

• To whom have you complained? —V. Finkelstein et al., 1993

• (informal) Who do you think you're speaking to? —W. McIlvanney, 1985.

5. Opinions about the diminishing use of whom vary widely from complete tolerance (‘We have got rid of ye as the subjective form of you, so why not whom as the objective form of who?’) to strong regret or outright disapproval. Most severely criticized now are uses in which who replaces whom in grammatically straightforward contexts which traditionally call for whom:

• Christ, who went for who first? —V. O'Sullivan, 1985

• The stuff which was kept under wraps most of the time came flooding out in elections: who had fought on what side, who had killed who, who had really represented the will of the Irish people —Independent, 1999.

Then there are those who regard the use of whom as a sign of education and reliability:

• ‘I don't know whom else to ask.’ The elder of the two policemen, Butterworth, noticed that she had said ‘whom’ and decided that she was a credible witness —Anita Brookner, 1992.

6. There are occasions when whom is used incorrectly (or hypercorrectly) when who is needed:

• ☒ The baronet whom Golitsin claimed had been the target for homosexual blackmail —P. Wright, 1987.

In this sentence, whom should be who, because it is the subject of had been (…who had been the target…) and not the object of claimed. This type, with the insertion of a word such as claim, say, think, etc., is extremely common:

• He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom [read: who] he says ruined his life —Sunday Times, 1990.

Note also constructions in which a whole clause introduced by who is the object of a verb or preposition; in these cases also, who is correct:

• The staff have noisy arguments about who should siesta on the cold stone floor —Len Deighton, 1976

• She wanted him to love her for who she really was —Times, 1998.


Modern English usage. 2014.

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