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The epic saga of who vs. whom

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When to use “who” and when to use “whom” is one of those grammar conundrums that just won't die.

Once you learn the rule, it’s not too hard to distinguish between the two.

“Who” is the subject that does an action, while “whom”is the object that receives an action. For example, “who” speaks to “whom.”

Pretty simple, right?

Unfortunately, learning the rule doesn’t mean you’ll escape tricky cases.

A listener recently emailed us and asked which to use in this sentence:

“We have chosen the candidate (who or whom) we believe can meet our needs.”

It’s easy to go with “whom” in this instance. “We believe” seems to be pointing right at “whom”, making it the object.

But that’s wrong. In this case “who” is the correct pronoun.

Ignore “we believe” for a moment. You’re left with, “We have chosen the candidate who can meet our needs.”

In this case, “who” functions as the subject of the relative clause, “who can meet our needs.”

You can test whether you’ve made the right choice by trying the sentence with he/him or she/her:

“We have chosen the candidate. He can meet our needs.”

Since “him” clearly would not work in this case, we know we made the correct choice with “who.”

Of course, sometimes there are places where usage guides tell us which is right, but it still just sounds wrong.

Grammar guru Anne Curzan ran into one of those instances while she was responding to an email recently.

“I was typing out the email, and I wrote, ‘I wasn’t sure who to send this email to.’ As I was typing, I was thinking about how I know that should’ve been ‘whom’ but ‘whom’ sounded terrible there,” Curzan said.

Agreed.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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