Who, Whom and all the rest

Welcome to the who family! Whom, whose, whomever, and whosoever are just some of the relatives.  But where do they all fit in? One thing they do have in common is that they are all pronouns.

A pronoun, by the way, is a word used instead of a noun to indicate someone or something already mentioned or is already known, and is being referred to again. For example:

  • “The man has a bald head.”
  • “The man ran off with his best friend’s wife.”

We can join both these sentences together and since “man” has already been mentioned we can use who as a pronoun when mentioning him a second time:

  • “The man, who has a bald head, ran off with his best friend’s wife.”

The other thing to note is that who is the subject. When the noun it is representing is the object then we use whom:

  • “She cannot remember whom she met.”

The object whom stands for the person she met. If she had remembered, the sentence would have been:

  • “She remembers meeting Jane.” [She (subject), Jane (object)].

So the key difference between who and whom is that it is essential to use who in place of the subject, and whom in place of an object in a clause. Before we get on to a more technical explanation let us look at a table of the who family.

The Who family of pronouns
SubjectObjectPossessive
WhoWhomWhose
WhoeverWhomeverWhosever
WhosoeverWhomsoeverWhosesoever
Who

Who (pronoun) – what or which person or persons; of what name or standing.

  • “Who said that?”
  • “He cannot remember who did it.”

Who is also used in restrictive and non-restrictive clauses to give further information about a person or people previously mentioned (ie the specified antecedent, being a person or sometimes an animal or personified thing, who has already been mentioned).

  • “The doorman who let us in checked our identification.”
  • “The family who live here have left.”
  • “Any child who wants to can learn to swim.”

So, using the first sentence as an example, where the doorman checked our identification, instead of repeating the noun, we replace “the doorman let us in” with “who let us in.”

Whom

Whom (pronoun) – objective form of who. (ie when who is not the subject of its own clause):

  • “Whom did you say had been in your house?”
  • “She cannot remember whom she met.”
  • “Whom did you wish to see?”

Note that whom is used less and less these days, especially in speech. It is still always used as the object of a preposition, however, when the preposition immediately precedes it:

  • “All patients with whom you have had contact must be tested.”
  • “To whom do I owe the pleasure?” [a fancy way of asking who you are]

The prepositions here are “with” and “to”.

Whose

Whose (pronoun) – possessive form of who. Belonging to or associated with which person. Possessive case of which, used as an adjective. Possessive determiner: of whom, of which.

  • “I told him whose car had broken down.”
  • “Someone whose belief is strong.”
  • “A house whose windows were broken.”
Whoever

Whoever (pronoun) – any person who; whatever person; no matter who; also as an intensifier:

  • “Whoever wants the money can take it.” [any person]
  • “I refuse to do it, whoever asks.” [whatever person]
  • “I will be over tomorrow, whoever may be there.” [no matter who]
  • “Whoever could have come up with that?” [as an intensifier]
Whomever

Whomever (pronoun) – objective form of whoever [and of whatever, by the way]. It replaces whoever when acting as an object of a verb or preposition:

  • “Whomever he spoke to he was always polite.”
  • “I will hire whomever I can find.”
Whosever

Whosever (pronoun) – possessive form of whoever. Belonging to or associated with whichever person; also, whoever’s.

  • “Whosever car this belongs to, remove it.”
Whosoever

Whosoever (pronoun) – formal term of whoever.

  • “Whosoever breaks the rules will face prosecution.”

From the context we can see that whosoever is more usually reserved for legal matters. The same goes for the rest of this sub-family, of course: whomsoever and whosesoever.

Whomsoever

Whomsoever (pronoun) – objective form of whosoever. It replaces whosoever when working as an object of a verb or preposition.

Whosesoever

Whosesoever (pronoun) – possessive form of whosoever.

  • “Whosesoever books are overdue will be fined.”

This is an archaic form and rarely used, if at all, for legal matters.

Further notes

Who’s

Who’s is simply a contraction of “who is”, or “who has”.

Determiner

A determiner goes in front of a noun. It includes a/an, the, this, those and every. Of course, the is also the definite article and a/an the indefinite articles.

What

Distant relations of the Who family are What, Whatever and Whatsoever.

What (pronoun- neuter of who) – anything; asking for a repetition of something not heard or for confirmation of something not understood; asking for information specifying something; as an intensifier (emphasis or surprise); and, (as an adverb) to what extent.

  • “Bring me what you have written.” [anything]
  • “What did you say the address was?” [confirmation]
  • “What job does he do?” [asking for information]
  • “What a good book!” [intensifier]
  • “What do you care?” [adverb]

Whatever (pronoun) – everything or anything that (usually used in relative clauses); any or any number of things; used to emphasise a lack of restriction in referring to anything; (informal) showing a lack of interest; as an intensifier.

  • “Whatever happens next just go with the flow.” (anything/everything)
  • “Books, magazines, newspapers, or whatever.” (any number of things)
  • “Do whatever he asks you to do.” (lack of restriction)
  • “Do whatever you like.” (lack of interest)
  • “Whatever could she have said that upset the teacher so much?” (intensifier)

Whatsoever (adjective) – at all; used as an intensifier with indefinite pronouns and determiners such as none, anybody. It is an archaic pronoun form of whatever, and more likely found in legal material:

  • “In any place whatsoever.”
That

The use of that in place of who when referring to a person is entirely acceptable in modern speech and writing:

  • “The man that wanted to talk to you.”
  • “The man who wanted to talk to you.”

Both correct.

Summary

In summary the traditional rules that determine the use of who and whom are relatively simple: who is used for a grammatical subject, where a nominative pronoun such as I or he would be appropriate; and whom is used elsewhere. Thus, we write:

  • “The actor who played Hamlet was there.”

In this sentence who stands for the subject of “played Hamlet”.

  • “Who do you think is the best candidate?”

Here who stands for the subject of “is the best candidate”.

However, consider:

  • “To whom did you give the letter?”

In this sentence whom is the object of the preposition “to”.

  • “The man whom the papers criticised did not show up.”

And, again, whom is the object of the verb “criticised”.

  • “I met the man whom the government had tried to get France to extradite.”

Where whom functions as the object of the verb “extradite”.

In speech and informal writing who tends to predominate over whom. For example:

  • “Who did John say he was going to support?”

Here, the use of who is incorrect but is considered common usage. Whom would create a stilted tone.

By contrast, the use of whom where who would be required, is incorrect:

  • “Whom shall I say is calling?” (incorrect)
  • “Who shall I say is calling?” (correct)

The relative pronoun who may be used in restrictive relative clauses, in which case it is not preceded by a comma, or in non-restrictive clauses in which case a comma is required. Thus, we may say:

  • “The scientist who discovers a cure for cancer will be immortalised.”

where the clause “who discovers a cure for cancer” indicates which scientist will be immortalised.

  • “The mathematician over there, who solved the four-color theorem, is widely known.”

In this sentence the clause “who solved the four-color theorem” adds information about a person already identified by the phrase “the mathematician over there”. The commas therefore bracket the clause that could be removed without spoiling the meaning.

The grammatical rules governing the use of who and whom apply equally to whoever and whomever; to whosoever and whomsoever.

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon and The Sands of Rotar.

Last updated: Thursday, 23rd April 2020