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Editing Tip: 'Who' and 'Whom'

These relative pronouns are frequently confused in academic and other writing. Learn when to use ‘who’ and ‘whom.’

In a previous post, we discussed when to use the relative pronouns 'that' and 'which' in academic writing. These two terms are used to introduce subordinate clauses, with 'that' preceding a restrictive element (something required for understanding of the sentence) and 'which' preceding a nonrestrictive element (something that provides additional information but is not needed). Both of these terms are generally used with non-human antecedents. What term should be used to refer to people in these situations?

The pronoun 'who' fulfills the role of both 'that' and 'which' in English writing, in addition to its use in questions (e.g., "Who won the Nobel prize this year?"). That is, 'who' is appropriate to introduce both restrictive and nonrestrictive elements that describe people. Please note: the word 'that' can be used with human subjects, but using 'who' helps to prevent confusion for the reader.

  • For the present analysis, we excluded all participants who were not taking medication for diabetes.
    In this case, 'who' is introducing a restrictive element that modifies the antecedent 'participants.'
  • My grandparents gave their old truck to Jack, who currently lives in Alaska.
    In this example, 'who' introduces a nonrestrictive element that gives additional information about Jack.

But what about the pronoun 'whom,' which generates some confusion, even among native English speakers? Whereas 'who' is a nominative pronoun, representing the agent of an action, 'whom' is an objective pronoun, the person receiving the effect of the action. Think of the question "Who did what to whom?"

  • Other researchers, whom we identified as users of the survey, may have interest in these data.
    Here, the researchers have been identified and are therefore an object in this sentence, necessitating the use of 'whom.'
  • Jack, to whom my grandparents gave their truck, is now moving to Florida and has decided to sell the truck to his friend.
    Jack has received the truck (that is, the truck was given to Jack), and so the pronoun 'whom' is the best choice.

We hope that this clears up some of the confusion around the use of 'who' and 'whom' when writing in English! As always, if you have questions, please contact us.

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