Who or Whom?
Amber, Igor, and Miss Hamrick dreamed up that and which when they wanted to refer to inanimate objects and abstractions. But they also dreamed up a set of relative pronouns (who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose) to refer to people. These words exhibit the condition of case, which you’ve already mastered.
The word who is the subjective case; whom, the objective; and whose, the possessive. Also, whoever is the subjective case, whomever the objective case.
Choosing the correct word—usually choosing between who and whom—becomes a difficult task, especially at social functions when you’re trying to impress people. So let’s learn how to get it right once and for all. The key lies in identifying the grammatical function served by the relative pronoun.
Picking the Right One
Here’s a trick that’ll force you to use the correct word 100% of the time: Identify the subjectless clause.
The what? The subjectless clause.
Remember the two clauses above? One clause (that you identified) has its own subject, the word you. But the other clause (that soared in value) has no independent subject. The word that must act as the subject. That’s a subjectless clause. It’s not really subjectless: it just has no other word acting as the subject; the pronoun must do that.
In clauses referring to people, whenever you spot a subjectless clause—and you must do it in a nanosecond—the word who is always correct. Why? Because the clause needs a subject and the subject must appear in the subjective case (who or whoever).
When you spot a clause that already has some other word acting as the subject, the word whom (or perhaps whose) will always be correct. Why? Because the clause likely needs an object and the object must appear in the objective case (whom or whomever). If the clause has both its subject and its object, then it might very well need the possessive case (whose).
Who vs. Whom - Identify the Subjectless Clause
Let’s see the trick in action. Which of the following clauses are subjectless?
1. The child who-whom did the homework received the top grade. 2. The child who-whom was chosen by the coach hit a home run. 3. The child who-whom the teacher selected had done the homework. 4. The child who-whom the coach chose hit a home run.
Numbers 1 and 2 have no independent subjects and thus require who—the subjective case.
Numbers 3 and 4 already have independent subjects and thus require whom—the objective case. Pay attention to these same clauses and their subjects (bold), their verbs (bold italic), and their objects (bold underlined):
1. The child who did the homework received the top grade. 2. The child who was chosen by the coach hit a home run. 3. The child whom the teacher selected had done the homework. 4. The child whom the coach chose hit a home run.
In sentences 1 and 2, the verbs in the clauses (did and was chosen) have no independent subjects, so you must supply it with the word who—the subjective case.
And in sentences 3 and 4, the verbs in the clauses (selected and chose) already have a subject (teacher and coach), so the verb then wants an object, which you supply with the word whom—the objective case.
The clauses having their subject-verb pair intact won’t always beg for a direct object for the verb. The object you supply might well be an object of a preposition. But the subjectless-clause trick still works to determine the need for who. Note the prepositional phrase in bold:
Parenthetically, please notice that whom follows the preposition and opens the clause. Such is the formal construction. In informal settings, however, you may move the preposition to close the clause. And please don’t let anyone tell you that you may not end a clause or a sentence with a preposition.
A preposition is often a good word to end a sentence with.
The child whom the teacher paid the most attention to tended to succeed.
Or you could drop the whom:
The child the teacher paid the most attention to made good grades.