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Just who is this post for? The difference between “who” and “whom”

A story in last week’s Observer newspaper included the sentence: “She now has a four-year-old daughter who she is bringing up in Turkey”. This would not go down well with Grammar Girl, whose numerous posts on questions of usage includes one explaining the difference between who and whom. She repeats the standard “rule” that:

You use “whom” when you are referring to the object of a sentence [and] “who” when you are referring to the subject.

In our Observer sentence, the four-year-old daughter is clearly the object of  “bringing up” – so was the who here just a careless mistake? I don’t think so. The trouble with simplistic rules like these is that they bear little relation to the evidence of how people actually use language – and they lead their advocates to make up sentences that wouldn’t have much chance of existing in real life. Grammar Girl backs up her explanation of the who/whom problem with examples which include “Whom did you step on?” and she even gives the Rolling Stones a telling-off for “being grammatically incorrect when they belted out the song Who Do You Love”. (They should have sung “Whom do you love”, of course.)

There are plenty of sites like this around, dispensing evidence-free advice for anxious writers.The same rule is trotted out on the Grammar Monster site, again accompanied by implausible examples such as Claire saw whom yesterday? and Whom did you go to the cinema with? To this last one, the Monster adds: “Ideally, you should not end a sentence in a preposition (like ‘with’), but sometimes it sounds better”. If he (she?) means this sounds better than With whom did you go to the cinema?, my response would be that neither sounds much good – or remotely natural.

Macmillan’s explanation, which has the benefit of being based on corpus data, includes examples which (though authentic) would make Grammar Girl’s hair curl, such as:

She was with her husband, who I had already met.
Who does this place belong to?
Who did you hire for the sales position?

As the dictionary explains:

In formal English whom is sometimes used instead of who as the object of a verb or preposition, but it sounds very formal to say: To whom did you speak? It is more normal to put the preposition at the end and say: Who did you speak to?

Three things stand out from the data. First, the use of whom as the first word in a question (as in Whom did you step on? or Whom did you go to the cinema with?) is so rare that it may as well not exist. There are 380 instances in our corpus, out of a total of 145,000 whoms – that’s 0.26%. Secondly, the use of whom when there is no preposition around (as in She has a four-year-old daughter whom she is bringing up in Turkey) is fairly common, accounting for just under a quarter of all uses of whom – but counter-examples using who (when referring to the object of a clause) are very frequent too, even in “serious” writing:

Find out who you should contact and how to make your complaint.
Their marriage survived her lesbian affair with Virginia Woolf who she met in 1922.
The rebels are fighting to oust Kabila, who they accuse of corruption.

The great majority of cases where whom is used – and where it still sounds natural – are when it follows a preposition. The commonest preposition in this construction is of, which itself typically follows a word like some, many, most, or all, or a specific amount: Over 40,000 people attended, 75% of whom lived locally. Again, starting a sentence with preposition + whom (Of whom are you speaking?) is extremely rare, and not recommended.

The final and most interesting lesson from the data is that whom is in steady long-term decline. In the million-word Brown Corpus of the 1960s, there are 146 instances of whom: that’s a rate of 146 hits per million words. The hit rate had fallen to 112 per million by the time the BNC was created in the early 1990s. Ten years on, we find a rate of 91 per million in the COCA Corpus’s texts for 2000-2004, and COCA’s most recent data – covering 2010-2012 – shows that whom occurs just 79 times per million words of text.

Is any clear guidance possible? The simplest advice would be to use whom only when it follows a preposition, but if the preposition is at the beginning of the sentence (At whom is this article aimed?) then turn it around and say Who is this article aimed at?

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Michael Rundell


  • Whom is also much more frequent in writing than in speech – intuitively obvious, but I’m sure you’ve got statistics to support this assertion, Michael. It’s certainly borne out by the analysis in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.
    I’m not surprised that whom is on the decline. It’s a vestige of the Old English declension system, and probably destined for oblivion.
    Advice for learners, I suppose, should include the caveat: “But if you’re thinking of taking an exam, try to find out what usage the examiners regard as acceptable.”

  • One place where ‘whom’ still holds its own is in the expression ‘To whom it may concern’, used at the top of formal communications where the identity of the recipient is unknown or irrelevant. There are nearly 5 million hits for this on Google. Apparently it is also the title of albums by Lisa Marie Presley and the Bee Gees. Who knew, as they say (but to whom?)

  • The Scots seems to use “whom” quite easily. I always have to think about it, and mostly don’t use it speaking, but I have often wondered why it is that it is so intuitive to identify object and subject when I’m talking about I/me, we/they, or him/he, but not with who/whom.

  • […] Above all, grammar is not about the made-up rules which prescriptivists are so fond of (and which Gwynne’s book, for example, is awash with). The mistake lies in confusing rules with norms or conventions. The use of should with first person subjects and would with the rest (‘I should like’ … vs ‘you/they would like’) was indeed a norm for many years. But conventions change over time, and the evidence of usage shows that this distinction is rarely observed now. No-one could argue that the clarity of a speaker’s message is affected by this change, so to say it is ‘wrong’ to break this rule is irrational. Similarly, anyone asking ‘Whom did you invite to your party?’ (in any but the most formal context) would invite ridicule now, even if this was once quite normal. (The use of whom, except in certain specific constructions, is in long-term decline.) […]

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