I was pleased to see a colleague remark in a recent online discussion that when she edits, she asks the client whether to maintain the who/whom distinction. That is sensible, satisfying the client’s preferences and saving editorial time.

Though maintained on life support by teachers, editors, and stylebooks, whom, long fading in common use, appears to be fading faster.


I offer a couple of personal observations. Over nearly forty years as a copy editor, the most frequent question I’ve heard from colleagues—college-educated writing professionals—has been “Should I use who or whom here?” And in my editing and reading I notice that people who use whom get it wrong as often as not.

Though whom clings tenaciously to prepositions (to whom, for whom, with whom), it has come to sound a little precious in speech, a little pompous, a little middle-class-aping-the-gentry in tone. If you answer the phone with “Whom shall I say is calling?” you are going to sound like a prat.

And you have got it wrong as well, because untangling the syntax shows “I shall say [that] who is calling,” with who as the subject of is.

That is why your middle school English teacher’s simplistic advice to replace who with he, she, or they, whom with him, her, or them will not carry you far enough. You need to understand the syntax, particularly in longer sentences where you can lose your way.

From my vast stores: Now that the electric fence is nearly complete, villagers wonder whether it will deliver a shock powerful enough to stop the Zimbabweans, who they blame for Botswana's rising number of thefts, rapes and other crimes.

If you want to follow the traditional grammar in this sentence, the pronoun is the object of they blame and should be whom. But did you notice that as you read? Or did you have to stop and puzzle it out?

A place where people commonly bungle is the construction in which who should be the subject of a clause that is itself the object of a verb, preposition, or infinitive.

In the fog of contradictory statements, it can be difficult to sort out the various competing interests and see whom provided accurate information.


The entire noun clause who provided accurate information is the object of the infinitive see.

A particularly treacherous construction is one in which the who/whom clause is part of an implied relative clause: The group included more than 100 informants whom CIA officials concluded had been implicated in major crimes abroad, including killings, kidnappings and terrorist acts — and who also provided inadequate intelligence.

Group included informants is the main clause. Then you have CIA officials concluded [that] followed by the subordinated clauses who had been implicated and who provided intelligence. (The parallelism of the second who clause should have tipped you up.)

I expect to be regularizing who and whom until I hang up the green eyeshade, but if you do not have the time or stomach for this kind of sorting out—or are in the grip of a stickler—just use who and be done with it.