Who and Whom

by Mark June 27, 2022
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Have you ever wanted your spoken or written English to sound a little more formal? Have you ever seen the word ‘Whom’ and wondered what it was? If the answer to either of these questions is ‘Yes’, then this is the blog post for you! We’re going to briefly refresh our memories about Relative Clauses and Relative Pronouns and how they are used in English, before moving on to a more detailed explanation of the relative pronouns Who and Whom.

Relative Clauses and Relative Pronouns

Let us begin with reminding ourselves about Relative Clauses. A Relative Clause is a part of a sentence that describes a noun, when it wouldn’t be possible to use an adjective to do the job. This might be because there isn’t actually a suitable adjective that you could use. As you will see, Relative Clauses can also be used to join two short sentences together into a longer, more coherent single sentence.

For example:
I have a cat. I rescued the cat from a storm when he was only a kitten. 

Here, the second sentence is giving descriptive information about my cat. However, it isn’t possible for us to structure the sentence in the form I have a + adjective + cat because there is no adjective in English that can describe this idea (I have a rescued-from-a-storm-when-he-was-only-a-kitten cat!?).

What we can do instead is to use a Relative Clause.

I have a cat which/that I rescued from a storm when he was only a kitten. 

Using relative clauses in English makes speaking and writing more fluent. It also helps us to avoid repeating words. 

As you hopefully can remember – there are two types of relative clauses. These are Defining Relative Clauses and Non-Defining Relative Clauses. 

A Defining Relative Clause contains information about a noun which is essential, that is to say that this information is necessary for us to have in order for us to understand the noun exactly. When we write defining relative clauses we use three common relative pronouns:

We use ‘who’ to describe people
We use ‘which’ to describe things and animals
We use ‘that’ to describe people, things and animals

Non-Defining Relative Clauses contain extra information which is not essential – we don’t need this information in order to understand the noun. When we write non defining relative clauses we use:

The relative pronoun ‘who’ to speak about people
The relative pronoun ‘which’ to speak about things and animals
But! We cannot use the relative pronoun ‘that’ in non defining relative clauses

Relative Clauses and Relative Pronouns

We use Relative Clauses to describe nouns.

Defining Relative Clauses give important information about a noun. We can use the pronouns who, which, and that in Defining Relative Clauses.

Non-Defining Relative Clauses give extra but unnecessary information about a noun. We can use the pronouns who or which (but not ‘that’) in Non-Defining Relative Clauses.

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The Relative Pronouns 'Who' and 'Whom'

The first important thing to know is that the Relative Pronoun ‘Whom‘ is only used in Formal English. In Informal English we generally avoid using ‘Whom’ by phrasing our sentences in ways that make it unnecessary.

It is also important to know the different between a Subject Pronoun and an Object Pronoun. Consider this sentence:

John emailed Ann. 

In this sentence, John is the Subject. John does the action. John writes and sends an email. Ann is the Object in the sentence. Ann doesn’t do an action. Ann is the person who receives the action.

In Informal English, the Relative Pronoun ‘Who’ can be used as both a Subject Pronoun and an Object Pronoun, whereas in Formal English the Relative Pronoun ‘Who’ is used as a Subject Pronoun, but the pronoun ‘Whom’ is used as an Object Pronoun.

For example:
That is the man who got the job.

In this sentence ‘The man’ is the noun, ‘who got the job’ is the relative clause.

‘The man’ did the action and so he is the Subject of the sentence. Therefore, we use the relative pronoun ‘who’ when we describe the subject (‘The man’).

We use the relative pronoun ‘whom’ when the relative pronoun is the Object of the verb it follows.

For example:
This is the man whom Ben met last week’

In this example, Ben is the subject of the sentence. Ben did the action. He met the man. In this sentence we have to use the relative pronoun ‘whom’ to describe ‘the man’ because ‘the man’ is the object of the verb.

Here is another example:
Whom did Maria meet last night?

In this sentence Maria is the subject. Maria did the action. The person Maria met is the Object of the sentence. For this reason, we can use the relative pronoun ‘Whom’ in this sentence.

Remember, we only use the pronoun ‘Whom’ in Formal English. If we are using Informal English then we simply use the pronoun ‘who’ in each case. (That is the man who got the job – This is the man who Ben met last week – Who did Maria meet last night?)

'Who' and 'Whom'

Who is a Subject Pronoun in Formal English

Whom is an Object Pronoun in Formal English

Who can be used as either a Subject or an Object Pronoun in Informal English.

Test Yourself

Choose the correct word – who or whom. Complete the sentences with Formal English.

1 / 5

The man _____ lives next door to me is a doctor.

2 / 5

The woman _____ loves me is American.

3 / 5

The woman _____ I love is American.

4 / 5

_____ did you see at the party?

5 / 5

_____ is making that terrible noise?

Your score is

Prepositions in Relative Clauses

In Informal English it is common to put prepositions at the end of a clause, whereas in Formal English it’s more common to put them at the beginning. When we have a preposition at the beginning of a relative clause, we must use the relative pronoun ‘whom’ – you can’t use ‘who’ after a preposition.

Here example questions where we use the word ‘who’ with a preposition in Informal English. Notice how the preposition is at the end of the phrase:

Who do you work for?
Who does he live with?
Who are you looking for?
Who is he listening to?

We can rewrite these sentences in a more formal way by moving the preposition and using the word ‘whom’:

Who do you work for’ becomes ‘For whom do you work?’
‘Who does he live with?’ becomes ‘With whom does he live?’
‘Who are you looking for?’ becomes ‘For whom are you looking?’
‘Who is he listening to?’ becomes ‘To whom is he listening?

Test Yourself

Who or Whom (part 2)

Choose the grammatically correct sentence. Consider whether the sentence is using Formal or Informal English!

1 / 6

Which sentence is correct?

2 / 6

Which sentence is correct?

3 / 6

Which sentence is correct?

4 / 6

Which sentence is correct?

5 / 6

Which sentence is correct?

6 / 6

Which sentence is correct?

Your score is


To wonder: ask yourself questions

To refresh: To remind yourself about something you have learnt before. Similar to the verb ‘to revise’

Clause: part of a sentence that contains a Subject and a Main Verb. Most sentences are made up of one or more clauses

Coherent: makes logical sense

Descriptive: adjective from the verb ‘to describe’

Thank you for reading our post. You’ll find more English grammar tips elsewhere on our site and if you’d like information on our online English courses live from Dublin, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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