are common and important English words, yet they are often mixed up or misunderstood in speech and writing. Even experienced academics may have difficulty deciding how to use these words, especially when it comes to the difference between who
. However, once you get the knack of it, deciding how to use who
can be quite easy. First of all, let’s look at the definition of each word:
is a subject pronoun, meaning it is used in a sentence or clause as a subject. As you remember, the subject of a sentence is the one doing the action. In the sentences below, Harvey
are the subjects.Harvey played racquetball with Jay. They met at the gym on Sunday. Who
has the meaning of what or which person(s) when it’s in its interrogative (questioning) form. You will often find who
is used as a question like this:
- Who is coming for dinner tonight?
- Who are you?
- Who was with you yesterday?
But the interrogative form of who is not always used as a direct question:
- We must find out who they are.
- I will decide what to do when we know who has made the team.
Notice that in the above examples, the sentences would still make sense ifwho
was replaced with what person
or which person/which persons
can also be used as a relative clause, often used to refer back to someone in a sentence, or to refer to a group of people or animals.
- My mother, who was a tall woman, was a brilliant bridge player.
- The current generation is one who knows nothing of American history.
- The dogs who wag their tails are usually friendly.
is an object pronoun, defined as the objective case of who
. As we have seen above, who
acts as the subject of the sentence, whereas whom
acts as the object of the sentence. In the sentence used above about Harvey and Jay playing racquetball, Jay is the object. Harvey played racquetball with Jay.
Notice that whom
never acts as the subject of the sentence in these examples:
- Sara met two men in the airport, one of whom she has known since childhood in the village.
- The coach picked Alexander, whom he believed to be the best goalie on the team.
- Whom should I speak with about setting up the dance?
You can see from the examples above that the sentences would make sense if a) you replaced whom
with an object pronoun: him, me, us, her
, or b) if you answered the question and the answer is an object pronoun.
- Sara met two men in the airport, one of them she has known since childhood in the village.
- The coach picked Alexander, as he believed him (Alexander) to be the best goalie on the team.
- You should speak with me/her/him/them/us?
is a possessive pronoun, which has three different functions:
- As the possessive case of who (used as an adjective).
- The coach chose someone whose record is strong.
- I told the teacher whose fault it was.
- As the possessive case of which (used as an adjective).
- We spoke to the man whose name escaped me.
- A snake whose skin sheds annually.
- The one or ones belonging to a person or persons.
- Whose car is parked in the driveway?
- Whose ticket is this?
- Whose coat were you wearing?
Whose vs Who’s
are homophones, meaning they sound almost identical when spoken. For that reason, the two words can be often confused in writing. As we have seen above, whose
is a possessive pronoun that is used to indicate possession. Who’s
is the contracted form of who is, used in informal speech or for brevity. The best way to remember the difference between whose
is to see if the sentence still makes sense when replacing it with who is
- Whose bag is this? Whose is correct, as who is bag is this wouldn’t make sense.
- Who’s going to the party tonight? Who’s is correct, as who is going to the party tonight still makes sense.
- Whose party is it? Whose is correct, as who is party is it wouldn’t make sense.
- A man, whose name escapes me, called our house. Whose is correct, as who is name escapes me wouldn’t make sense.
When to use Who
In a sentence or clause, who
will be used as the subject or to refer back to the subject in a sentence. In its simplest terms, this means who
will be the part of the sentence or clause directly interacting with the main verb and performing the action.
- Who is going to the movies later?
- Who doesn’t agree with me?
- John – who got a new dog last week – needed to buy a stronger leash.
- He got a new dog, one who barked all night and slept all day.
- Simon and Danielle, who felt claustrophobic, refused to take the elevator.
Remember that subjects do an action in a sentence, so who
can usually be replaced by subject pronouns like he, she, it
and still make sense.
- She is going to the movies later?
- He doesn’t agree with me?
- John – he got a new dog last week – needed to buy a stronger leash.
When to use Whom
In a sentence or clause, whom
is used to refer to the object of a verb or preposition. Put simply, whom
does not directly interact with the main verb or perform the action.
- With whom should I go to the movies later?
- The lady to whom I spoke was French, not German.
- The boys were exhausted, most of whom hadn’t slept in days.
- For whom is the gift intended?
- James Madison, about whom we speak little nowadays, was a superb leader.
Remember that objects receive the action in a sentence, so when whom
is used in a question, the answer can be expressed with object pronouns and like him, her and them.
- With whom should I go to the movies later? With him!
- For whom is the gift intended? For them!
When to Use Whose
In a sentence or clause, whose
is used to as a possessive pronoun. We use whose
in a sentence to either indicate or to question who something belongs to.
- Whose paintings are these?
- John, whose dog barked all night, is loathed by his neighbours.
- Let him whose conscience is clear step forward.
- Whose house shall we visit next?
- I have no doubt whose mess it is.
Who is a Subject Pronoun
A personal subject pronoun is simply a pronoun that is the subject of the verb. It is the thing or person that performs the action of the verb. A subject pronoun decides how the verb is conjugated.
- He is going to the store.
- I love you.
- She was not very tired.
- They are coming.
If we replace the personal subject pronouns he, she
in the above examples with who
, you will notice that the sentences become questions.
- Who is going to the store? He is.
- Who loves you? I do!
- Who wasn’t very tired? She wasn’t.
- Who is coming today? They are. *
will take the singular form when posing a question, even though we may be speaking of more than one person.
Of course, who
can still be used as a subject pronoun in a clause without needing to be a question.
- Mike, who went to the store earlier, will be back shortly.
- Daphne, who is very tired, won’t be at work today.
- The Simpsons, who are not coming today, hate Disneyland.
Whom is an Object Pronoun
An object pronoun is not used as the subject of the verb, but the object. It is receiving the action in the sentence, but not doing the action itself.
- With whom did you travel to France?
In the sentence above, the subject pronoun you
is performing the action (travelling to France), whereas the object whom
is not performing the action (in a grammatical sense). We know that whom
is replacing an object personal pronoun, because of how we would answer the question.
- With whom did you travel to France? I travelled with him/her/them.
- About whom is this written? It’s written about him.
- To whom does this belong? It belongs to her.
- And to whom should I address this invitation? You should address it to them.
Notice that when we answer the questions, the object pronouns do not become the main subject of the verb. This tells us that the usage of whom was correct in the sentence.
Whose is a Possessive Pronoun
Possessive pronouns, such as her, his
, are used to indicate ownership by a person or thing. We use whose
as a possessive pronoun if we wish to find out who owns something or as a clause when indicating ownership is important to the context of the sentence.
- Whose cat might be in the house?
- Tell me, whose bag was left behind?
- Can anyone guess whose famous essay was titled “The Lion and the Unicorn”?
- Frankie, whose full name was Francesca, lied about her age.
- Dad, whose socks always had holes in them, didn’t care how he looked.