Understanding how to properly use the relative pronouns who and whom is fairly simple once you know whether the pronoun is subjective, in which case you’d use who or whoever; or objective, which calls for the use of whom or whomever. Whether or not you master basic pronoun rules, exploring relative pronouns can be a creative and fun challenge.
Let’s examine the subjective case:
Who is calling?
Who do you think will win the election?
I don’t know who is at the door.
Now, the objective case:
To whom did you address the letter?
Whom do you think they’ll nominate?
We chose candidates whom we hoped the public would trust.
We at Writer’s Relief want to make it easy for you. If the difference between who versus whom is still unclear, try substituting he or him (or, to avoid gender bias, she or her):
He is calling.
Do you think he will win the election?
He is at the door.
Did you address the letter to her?
Do you think they’ll nominate her?
We hope the public will trust her.
If you can substitute he or she, then use the subjective case (who). If you can substitute him or her, use the objective case (whom). This is a simple way to remember the difference between who and whom.
The same strategy works for whoever versus whomever:
Whoever is responsible for letting the cat out should go find her. (He is responsible.)
You are free to go to the movies with whomever you want. (Go to the movies with her.)
Things become a little less straightforward when who or whom are part of longer clauses that, themselves, function as subjects or objects:
We are looking for donations from whoever wishes to contribute.
In this sentence, “whoever” is the subject of the clause “whoever wishes to contribute,” and the entire clause is the object of the preposition “from,” not just the pronoun. Confusing? Don’t forget to make the pronoun switch, which yields, He wishes to contribute.
Another tricky one: I told him that I figured out who would be the best person to ask.
“Who” is the subject of the clause “who would be the best person to ask.” Employing our strategy, replace who with she:
Right: I told him that I figured out she would be the best person to ask.
Wrong: I told him that I figured out her would be the best person to ask.
Still have unanswered questions about whether your relative pronouns work in your writing as they should? Call us about our A La Carte proofreading services today!
Note: Everyday speech can be informal. The same can be said of dialogue and informal writing, and who is often used when whom is actually correct. Whether or not you choose the objective form or the subjective form is up to you and depends on the formality of your writing. The conclusion from experts is this: In informal speech and writing, we can break the rules. In formal writing, we cannot.