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Who vs. whom

In most contexts, the use of who in place of whom is not a serious error. Many English speakers do not routinely use whom in their informal communication, and the word can sound overformal to many listeners even where it is logically correct. Be aware, however, that some people are strict about the who/whom distinction, so if you are writing a school paper or a college application or are applying for a job, using the words in the manner considered proper is safest.

When you’re in doubt, always use who. Most English speakers are used to hearing who where whom would be correct, but the mistaken use of whom where who is the correct form is a more serious blunder.

Who is a nominative pronoun, which is a pronoun that performs an action rather than receives an action. It has two main uses:

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  • It’s the subject of a verb—e.g., Who gave you that book?
  • It’s a predicate nominative (a noun in the predicate that renames or refers to the sentence’s subject)—e.g., This is who I am.

Whom is an objective pronoun, which is a pronoun that receives the action of a verb. It also has two main uses:

  • It is the object of a verb—e.g., Whom should I call?
  • It is the object of a preposition—e.g., From whom did you get this information?
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Comments

  1. The following sentence appeared in a New Yorker book review: “But what about Sir Isaac Newton, whom some contend was autistic?” (“Little Strangers,” by Nathan Heller, November 19, 2012). Doesn’t the subordinate clause call for the nominative pronoun “who,” which is the subject of “was”? Some contend “he” was autistic.

    • Agreed. There’s no call for “whom” there because it’s not the object of the verb “contend” (they neither contend him nor contend to him). “Some contend” is actually an adverbial clause modifying “was autistic.” Maybe the editors at the New Yorker have some quirky reason to justify the “whom,” though. They do weird things there.

  2. Joseph Sharp says:

    The error is caused by confusion with the usage known as “accusative and infinitive”, where “whom” is correct:. E,g “Isaac Newton, whom some contend to have been autistic.” The error is shown if you simply put “some contend” in parentheses: ” . . . whom (some contend) was autistic.” “Whom” should, then, clearly be “who”.

    • I think the book review was correct. Sir Isaac Newton is the object of the clause so whom should be used. As in:

      Statement : Some people contend that Newton was autistic.

      Question: Whom did they contend was autistic?

      Answer: It was Newton whom they contended was autistic.

      I don’t like it though and I think that ‘who’ sounds better.

      I don’t mind ‘to whom’ though as in ‘he gave it to whom?’

  3. I think you are wrong, Dave. In the sentence, “It was Newton whom they contended was autistic” what is the subject of the verb “was”? It is “who”. That cannot be whom”, which is the objective case.

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