Grammar 101: Who vs. Whom
Before we dive into what is perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood grammar rule in all of English, here’s a piece of advice: in real life, don’t use whom. Standardized tests like the ACT and SAT still occasionally test you on the differences between who and whom, but outside of those tests, when you’re having conversations or writing a paper, there’s really no need to use the word whom. It’s been phased out of everyday conversation in the same way “dost,” “hither,” “aught,” and other Shakespearean-sounding words have. If you’re throwing a “whom” into an English paper to try and impress your teacher, I promise you’ll get a better grade if you spend that mental energy on your thesis statement or internal citations instead.
That said, standardized tests haven’t quite gotten that memo yet, so here’s the most straightforward way to understand the differences between who and whom. Grammatically, “who” is a subject and “whom” is an object. But if you’re thinking to yourself, “I have no idea what a subject or an object is,” don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. The easiest who vs. whom trick is to use “who” in place of the word “he” and “whom” in place of the word “him.”
For example, let’s say you read this sentence: I see someone who/whom can help.
Substitute he/him into the sentence and see which one sounds better. Would you say He can help or Him can help? Clearly, “he” sounds better than “him,” so you need to use “who” for this sentence: I see someone who can help.
On an ACT or an SAT, the only time you’re really going to use “whom” is if it comes right after a preposition. We’ll do a whole Grammar 101 post about prepositions in the future, but for now, prepositions are words like in, on, of, to, by, and for. Always use “whom” after a preposition. If you use the he/him trick, you’ll be able to hear the difference. Let’s say you’re going to buy your brother a present. Would you buy it for he or buy it for him? Since “him” sounds way better, “whom” is the right word to use.
As long as you remember that “he” goes with “who” and “him” goes with “whom,” you’ll get every who vs. whom question right on your tests.