Cracking the Code of English Pronouns: What’s The Difference Between ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’

Elly Kimreviewed bySana Liashuk / more about Editorial Process8 min
Created: May 29, 2023Last updated: Feb 1, 2024
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You’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’ in a sentence. This pair of pronouns can be particularly perplexing, leading many to avoid using ‘whom’ altogether! But with understanding comes ease. This article will unpack the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ offering clear explanations and handy tips to build your confidence in using these words appropriately. So it’s time to dive into English grammar and come out victorious!

Understanding Pronouns: ‘Who’ Vs. ‘Whom’

In the vast universe of the English language, pronouns play an essential role. They are compact and practical and make our lives easier by taking the place of nouns in our sentences. It helps us avoid sounding like a broken record, repeating the same nouns consistently.

Two particular pronouns that often confuse are ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ They are unique because they belong to the group of interrogative pronouns. But what does that mean? In simpler terms, ‘who’ and ‘whom’ are used when we ask questions about people. However, they have different roles in those sentences.

While we use ‘who’ and ‘whom’ to ask about people, not places or things, their purpose extends beyond simple queries. They are employed to gather information about someone’s identity or to understand their role in a particular situation. So, each time you use ‘who’ or ‘whom,’ you are trying to get more information about a person.

What’s the Difference Between ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’: the Golden Rule

When distinguishing between these pronouns, there’s a simple rule of thumb that can make your life much easier. Think of it this way: ‘who’ does the action, while ‘whom’ receives it. This ‘who’ ‘whom’ rule might become your guiding light in the murky world of English grammar.

So let’s take a closer look at ‘who.’ ‘Who’ is used when referring to the subject of the sentence. The subject is the person doing the action or being something. For instance, the sentence, “Who is singing in the shower?” Here, ‘who’ is used because we are asking about the person doing the action, which in this case is singing. Here are a few more examples:

  • Who ate my sandwich?
  • Who is going to the concert tonight?
  • Who is the author of this article?

Conversely, we have ‘whom,’ the laid-back pronoun, always receiving something. ‘Whom’ is used when we’re referring to the object of the sentence, the person who receives the action. Consider the sentence, “Whom are you calling?” Here, ‘whom’ is the receiver of the action. You are calling, and ‘whom’ is on the receiving end. Some sentences with ‘whom’ in action are:

  • To whom did you give the present?
  • To whom should I address this letter?
  • With whom are you going on vacation?

To simplify the explanation further, we can replace ‘who’ with ‘he/she/they’ and ‘whom’ with ‘him/her/them.’ As in the sentence, “Who loves ice cream?.” The answer would be, “He loves ice cream.” But in this example: “Whom did you give the cookies?,” we can substitute ‘whom’ with ‘them.’ So, it becomes like this: “You gave them the cookies.”

It is pretty simple, right? But remember that sentences can be more complex than straightforward questions. For example, when multiple clauses are in the sentence or questions become indirect, it’s easy to confuse between ‘who’ and ‘whom.’


Diving Deeper: When ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’ Get Tricky

English grammar can be a tough cookie to crack. Sentences aren’t always straightforward; sometimes, the ‘whom’/‘who’ difference can be hard to spot. It is especially true when dealing with indirect questions or sentences with multiple clauses. In such cases, it’s essential to identify what role these pronouns play in the sentence. 

Let’s take an example: “Although I cannot recall the name of the gentleman with whom he was speaking at dinner last night, can you tell me who offered to drive us home?” The sentence is made up of two indirect questions:

  • Although I cannot recall the name of the gentleman with whom he was speaking at dinner last night...
  • Can you tell me who offered to drive us home?

In the first part, we use ‘whom’ because it’s the object of the preposition ‘with.’ A helpful way to check is to answer the question, “He was speaking with him.” The pronoun ‘him’ corresponds with ‘whom.’

In the second part of the sentence, we use ‘who’ because it’s the subject of the verb ‘offered’ and performing the action. To test it, answer the question: “He offered to drive us home.” The pronoun ‘he’ corresponds to ‘who.’

When the sentence has multiple clauses, look at the one where these pronouns appear and apply the same rule on when to use ‘whom’ or ‘who.’ For instance, “Tell me about the woman who won the lottery and whom you met at the party.” In the first clause, ‘who’ is used because it’s the subject of the verb ‘won.’ In the second clause, ‘whom’ is used because it’s the object of the verb ‘met.’

Times When ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’ are Interchangeable

Okay, you’ve got the difference between ‘whom’ and ‘who,’ but are there times when these pronouns can be used interchangeably? Yes, the English language is full of quirks; indeed, there are times when both pronouns can be used.

First, clear the air by stating that technically, ‘who’ and ‘whom’ are not interchangeable, according to the strict rules of English grammar. However, in casual conversation and informal writing, you often find ‘who’ is used instead of ‘whom.’ Why, you ask? It’s primarily because ‘whom’ can sound outdated or formal to the modern ear.

For instance, “Who is this gift for?” is a question you might often hear, even though “For whom is this gift?” would be more grammatically correct. Many people find the latter formulation a bit stuffy and choose to go with the more casual ‘who’ instead.

Another instance where ‘who’ and ‘whom’ may seem interchangeable is in indirect questions, like “I don’t know who she was talking to.” Again, according to traditional grammar rules, ‘whom’ would be appropriate here, as it is the object of the preposition ‘to.’ But in everyday speech and writing, many people use ‘who’ instead.

While these exceptions may seem to add another layer of complexity, they demonstrate language's flexibility and evolving nature. So keep your grammar hat on, but don’t forget to enjoy the ride!

Time to Practice: ‘Who’ Vs. ‘Whom’ Examples

Now that we’ve got the rules down, let’s see these pronouns in action. Practicing real-life sentences helps solidify your understanding and gives you a feel for how these words are used in everyday language. Below are some examples to help you grasp their usage more effectively. Here’s when to use ‘who’:

  • Who is the generous soul who donated this beautiful collection of books to our local library?
  • Do we know who was behind the planning and execution of this successful charity event?
  • Who had the mental prowess to solve the complex mathematical problem in record time?
  • I wonder who was the last person to leave and forgot to close the door behind them?
  • Does anyone know who won the soccer game last night?

It’s so simple! You will not be confused with this preposition when you know the rules. Now, let’s look at how to use ‘whom’ in a sentence:

  • For whom did you buy these beautiful flowers?
  • To whom did you lend your car last weekend?
  • Whom did you invite to the party?
  • Whom are you going to vote for in the upcoming elections?
  • Whom did they hire for the construction project?

These sentences provide a good mix of ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ helping you understand which one to use, depending on the context. Remember that there may be instances where the usage could get tricky, but with practice and a solid understanding of their roles, you’ll soon become an expert in using these pronouns.

Master Your Grammar with Promova

Are you tired of making grammatical errors and feeling embarrassed when speaking or writing in English? Don’t worry; Promova is here to help! Our language-learning platform offers everything you need to master English grammar thoroughly and confidently. From basic sentence structure rules to advanced topics like complex tenses, our courses cater to learners at all levels.

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Congratulations! You’ve made it through the maze and now understand what’s the difference between ‘whom’ and ‘who.’ It’s not always easy, but you’ll find yourself using these pronouns quickly with practice. Remember that ‘who’ does the action while ‘whom’ receives it; this golden rule is your guiding light when using these pronouns. While there are times when ‘who’ and ‘whom’ can be used interchangeably, particularly in casual conversation or informal writing, it’s best to follow the traditional rules of English grammar.


Can ‘whom’ be used to refer to animals?

Typically, ‘whom’ is primarily used to refer to people rather than animals. However, there can be exceptions, particularly in literature, where animals are personified or assigned human-like qualities or roles. In these contexts, writers might use ‘whom’ to refer to an animal. Still, it’s more the exception than the rule, and in most everyday language use, ‘whom’ will refer to a person or people.

What are common mistakes when using ‘who’ and ‘whom’?

Beyond simply mixing up ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ there are other common errors that English learners often encounter. One such mistake is misplacing ‘whom’ in a sentence, leading to awkward phrasing that can disrupt the flow of communication.

What’s a funny way to remember the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’?

There’s a catchy and amusing mnemonic that can help clarify the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’: “Who did what to whom?” It’s a simple sentence with the fundamental grammar rule – ‘who’ is the doer of the action, and ‘whom’ is the receiver.

What resources can be helpful for learning grammar?

Several resources can be helpful for learning grammar. For instance, Grammar Bank offers a variety of free materials, including grammar exercises and tests. Another useful resource is Grammar Monster, which provides clear explanations of grammatical concepts alongside examples and practice exercises.