Who, whom and whose 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 and whom. However, once you get the knack of it, deciding how to use who, whose and whom can be quite easy. First of all, let’s look at the definition of each word:
Who 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 and they 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:
But the interrogative form of who is not always used as a direct question:
Notice that in the above examples, the sentences would still make sense ifwho was replaced with what person or which person/which persons.
Who 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.
Whom 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:
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 them, or b) if you answered the question and the answer is an object pronoun.
Whose is a possessive pronoun, which has three different functions:
Whose and 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 and who’s is to see if the sentence still makes sense when replacing it with who is.
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.
Remember that subjects do an action in a sentence, so who can usually be replaced by subject pronouns like he, she, it and they and still make sense.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If we replace the personal subject pronouns he, she and they in the above examples with who, you will notice that the sentences become questions.
*Who 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.
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.
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.
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.
Possessive pronouns, such as her, his and our, 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.