You begin your email with “To whom it may concern,” and then you pause. For some reason, that M is troubling. You might have learned the rules about how to use “whom” a long time ago, but if you did, it was when you were young and couldn’t really understand; plus, since the vast majority of the populace has ceased to care about the subtle differences between "who" and "whom," odds are that the schooling you received on the subject was incomplete or even incorrect.
So, you wonder, which is it? To who it may concern, or to whom? What, exactly, are the rules that govern this oft-ignored part of the English language?
The great debate: who vs. whom.
In modern Normal English, the pronoun “whom” has fallen more and more out of use, despite its continued importance in Formal English. The Economist states that the word “who” appears 57 times more frequently than “whom” in the Spoken category of the Corpus of Contemporary American English. In other words, these days, people are using “who” instead of “whom” constantly, so much so that this substitution has become entirely acceptable in common parlance.
Despite the fact that the differences are almost universally disregarded in spoken language, there will still be moments in your life when you’re required to write using Formal English, such as when you’re crafting an email to someone whose name you don’t know. In those moments, it’s important to know the difference between “who” and “whom.”
“Who” is a subjective pronoun, or a pronoun that acts as the subject of its sentence. This means that it is used as a substitute for other subjective pronouns, like “he” or “they,” when the subject of the sentence is unknown. For example, in the question, “Who is applying ointment?” the word “who” is standing in for the pronoun “He” — “He is applying ointment.” In a non-interrogative sentence, like “I am the person who called earlier,” the word “who” is standing in for the pronoun “I” — “I called earlier.”
“Whom,” on the other hand, is an objective pronoun, or a pronoun that acts as the object of the verb. Other objective pronouns include “her,” “me,” and “him.” “Whom” is used to substitute definite objective pronouns — for example, in the sentence, “Whom should she talk to about getting that rash checked out?” one need only replace “whom” with “him,” ending up with the sentence,“She should talk to him about getting that rash checked out.” In addition to this rule, prepositions often take “whom,” so the presence of a preposition in a sentence should make you think twice about using "who."
Whenever you’re stuck on whether you should be using “who” or “whom,” try substituting both a subjective and objective pronoun. You’ll know immediately when you come out with sentences like “Me called earlier” and “She should talk to he” that you’ve messed something up.
The difference between who and whom
Example No. 1: Who/whom robbed the bank?
Few people mess up in instances like this one, since we all use “who” more often colloquially than “whom.” Just plug in a subject pronoun, “he,” and make sure it fits (which it does): “He robbed the bank.” The alternative, “Him robbed the bank” is clearly incorrect.
Answer No. 1: Who robbed the bank?
Example No. 2: Who/whom was the bank robbed by?
This example is a little more tricky, because this question was rephrased so that “who/whom” is no longer the subject. Now, “the bank” is the subject of the sentence, which means you’ll need to use “whom” as the object. “The bank was robbed by he” doesn’t work; the bank was clearly robbed by “him.”
Answer No. 2: Whom was the bank robbed by?
Example No. 3: I spoke to the lady who/whom had the terrible rash.
Since “who/whom” here is working to further describe “the lady,” which is the subject of the sentence, you can safely assume that you should be using “who.” If that rationale isn’t convincing, try plugging in your alternate subjective and objective pronouns: “She had the terrible rash” is certainly preferable to “Her had the terrible rash.”
Answer No. 3: I spoke to the lady who had the terrible rash.
Example No. 4: The doctor to who/whom I spoke earlier did not prescribe proper rash treatment.
If you’ve read carefully, your instincts should be whispering to you that the preposition “to” might indicate the use of “whom” here, and they’re right. The speaker “spoke earlier to her;” they didn’t speak to “she.” Other prepositions that use “whom” include “with” and “by.”
Answer No. 4: The doctor to whom I spoke earlier did not prescribe proper rash treatment.
Example No. 5: I can eat with whoever/whomever I choose.
“Whoever” and “whomever” follow the same rules as their shortened counterparts. For that reason, you should assume that “whomever” is the appropriate choice for this sentence, because it includes the preposition "with."
Answer No. 5: I can eat with whomever I choose.
Test yourself: who v. whom quiz!
Who/whom drank all the salad dressing before I could put any on my salad?
Whoever/whomever ate the last cookie is in BIG trouble.
I don’t know the man of who/whom you speak so highly.
There are about fifteen people who/whom hate you in this room right now.
Who/whom did you party with last night?
I’m certain that I've never met whoever/whomever committed those terrible, inhumane crimes.
I hope the person who/whom did this rots in jail.
To who/whom should I address this envelope?
Who/whom wants to grab a drink after we get out of the pool?
The person on who/whom they pinned the accusation seems guilty to me.
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