A PDF version is also available: Who cares about Whom_Grammar Badgers

Who cares about whom?

who whom badger Having trouble with who/whom? Don’t worry. You are not alone.



Briefly who and whom are interrogative/relative pronouns. Ok, more head-scratching words?

Interrogative pronouns are words that are used to make asking questions easy (interrogative is just a formal way to say ask). You may have heard wh- words—yes, those are some examples of interrogative pronouns.

Now let’s move on to relative pronouns; relative pronouns introduce a relative clause after a noun. Who and whom both can be playing those roles. What is important here is that who is used as the subject of a verb (or complement of a linking verb) and whom is used as the object of the verb or the object of a preposition.

Enough of definitions—sometimes it is just better to read some sentences and get the taste of them. (Scroll down and you’ll see a detailed explanation of the sentences below.)

  • Who/Whom as interrogative pronouns:

            Who is coming to class today?

            Whom do you teach?

  • Who/Whom as relative pronouns:

           Bucky, who is from Madison, joined the Intensive English Program.

           Bucky, whom I know from high school, joined the Intensive English Program.


  • Here are some quotes from our interviews with ESL tutors:
  • Grammar books vs. Reality

There are prescriptive rules for who/whom usage—use who for a subjective case and use whom for the objective case. However, many more descriptively oriented grammar books recognize that the who/whom distinction is losing significance in everyday conversation.

  • Here are some excerpts from two selected grammar textbooks:

Center Stage (Pearson Longman): “When the object of the relative clause is a person, we use whom in formal, written English. However, in everyday conversation, we use who or that. We can also omit that or who. There is no change in meaning.” 

Focus on Grammar (Pearson Longman): “Relative pronouns that can be the object of the adjective clause are who, whom, that, which, and whose. Use whom, who, or that to refer to people. Whom is very formal. Most speakers do not use whom in everyday speech. That is less formal than who. The most common spoken form is the one with no relative pronoun.”



You should consider who your audience is! Here are some questions that you might want to consider:

  • Who are my students/tutees?
  • What are their needs?
  • What kind of language skills do they have? Can I use grammar terms like subject, pronouns, and clause?
  • Do they have to know strict rules of this grammar topic?
  • Do they just want to achieve better communication skills or do they want to write essays for a college composition class?
  • What kind of examples and activities will make today’s class fun and meaningful?

Here we provide two possible groups of your English learner:

  • Group 1: Beginning-level learners, learners from non-academic settings, learners whose goal is improving communication skills rather than formal writing skills.
  • Group 2: Intermediate/advanced learners, learners from academic settings, learners whose goal is to improve not only communication skills but also formal writing skills.

Feel free to adjust our tips based on your students’ level and needs. In other words, be flexible. Let’s say your student is a post-doc and wants clear and hard-core prescriptive rules. You can explain rules for who/whom as: Use who when you refer to a subject and use whom when you refer to an object of a sentence. Also when the word is preceded by a preposition, whom should be used, because preposition takes objective case. Basically, who/whom is the same thing as English having he/him, she/her, and they/them based on their case (subject or object).

For beginning-level learners or those whose first priority is to improve communication skills, you can say: Use whom when you are referring to the object of a sentence. But when you are not sure, it is okay to use who because whom is now regarded as very formal and many people also use who instead of whom in everyday conversation for object pronouns.

Once your students understand the basic concept, you can go on and have them practice Hypothetical Answering for interrogative pronouns who/whom.

(a) In the case of this sentence,

[Who/Whom] is coming to class today?

a hypothetical answer would be,

XX is coming.

To fill XX, some possible nouns are,

[somebody / Joey / your student’s name / he / she]

XX is the subject (doer) of the imaginary answer. Therefore, who is correct.

–> Who is coming to class today?

(b) In the case of this sentence,

[Who/Whom] do you teach?

a hypothetical answer would be,

I teach YY.

To fill XX, some possible nouns are,

[somebody / Joey / your student’s name / him / her]

YY is the object of the imaginary answer. Therefore, whom is okay.

–>Whom do you teach?

(c) For relative pronouns who/whom, practice the step-by-step process.

   Bucky joined the Intensive English Program.

+ Bucky is from Madison. (–> Bucky is the subject of this sentence.)


= Bucky, who is from Madison, joined the Intensive English Program.


    Bucky joined the Intensive English Program.

+ I know Bucky from high school (–> Bucky is the object of this sentence)


= Bucky, whom I know from high school, joined the Intensive English Program.


  • More tips:

Increase learners’ awareness of the difference usage between who and whom. Also talk about the ‘formality’ expectation. For example, academic written English has a higher level of formality than spoken English. Therefore, when a relative pronoun refers to the object of a clause, whom is likely to be expected in academic writing.

Mignon Fogarty (a.k.a. Grammar Girl) from Quick and Dirty Tips provides useful advice. Like whom, the pronoun him ends with the letter M. When you’re trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the hypothetical answer to the question would contain he or him. If it’s him, you use whom, and they both end with Ms.

And, of course, practice, practice, and practice. Students learn faster when sentences are meaningful to them. Try to make sentences that they can use tonight and tomorrow rather than going over irrelevant sentences from textbooks.


  1. Online exercise

From Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/who-versus-whom-quiz

There are six question along with nice explanations. You can start or end your lesson with this short quiz. When you use this before your lesson, it will raise your students’ awareness; when you use this after your lesson, it will work as a quick assessment how much they understood.


  1. Summary
  • Think about your audience and adjust your lesson plan to suit their level and needs.
  • Prescriptively, who is used when in a subjective position and whom is used when in an objective position or after a preposition.
  • In spoken English, who often replaces whom; whom is considered more formal and is expected to be used in written genres.
  • Make and practice meaningful examples of who/whom to your students.