Whhhooooooooo Sez So?

by Brenda Bensch


While I was teaching in Utah’s high schools, I occasionally told students I thought the word whom would disappear from the English language, because it was used so seldom. Unfortunately, it’s still with us. Almost no one uses it; but when they don’t use it and should, or they get it wrong, it looks and/or sounds terrible. Especially the many I’ve heard (even TV and radio newscasters) who want to sound more “in the know,” or wish to sound “sophisticated” and use whom and whomever—then get it wrong and sound worse than ever!

Now, I could talk to you about the “Nominative Case,” and “Possessives” and the “Objective Case,” but you might object. Oh, you heard about them any time from about fifth grade up . . . perhaps you didn’t “get it” then, or you’ve forgotten it by now anyway.

Instead, I’d rather tell you the easiest ways to get who, whom, who’s and whose right every time.


1. When you want to say or write who’s, say out loud to yourself “Who is” (or it may mean “who has”). (After a while, you can just say it in your head . . . but do it every time.) If that’s not what you mean, use whose.

2. When you’re trying to decide between who and whom, substitute he and him. I contend that, when you learn to think with this substitution, you will almost never get it wrong again. Which substitution would you use: he, or him?

That’s it, folks.

Except, now you have to put it into practice. Let’s try out some sentences (think he is like who, with no letter “m”; him and whom both have the “m”):

a. Who/whom won the tennis match yesterday?
Most of us would never say “Him won the tennis match yesterday,” rather, “He won the tennis match yesterday.” He=who, therefore “Who won the tennis match yesterday?”

b. I know who/whom stole my bike last year.
Would you say “I know him stole my bike last year”? No, you’d probably say
“I know he stole my bike last year.” He=who, therefore “I know who stole my bike last year.”

c. During the St. George Marathon, the last runner in was who/whom?
Questions can be a little more tricky: “ . . . the last runner in was he?” or “ . . . the last runner in was him?” With this type of question, turn the word order around to make a statement instead of the question: “ . . . he was the last runner in . . . ” or “ . . . him was the last runner in . . . ” Most of you wouldn’t choose the latter. He=who, therefore “During the St. George Marathon, the last runner in was who?” If that sounds a little odd to your ears, just keep saying it to yourself until it sounds more natural.

d. Who/whom did she finally ask to the girl’s date dance?
That’s one of those tricky questions again: “He did she finally ask . . . ”? or “Him did she finally ask . . . ”? Neither seems to work, so turn the order around to make a statement: “She finally did ask he” or “She finally did ask him”? “She finally did ask him,” of course. Therefore, “Whom did she finally ask to the girl’s date dance?”

e. Of course, she can ask whoever/whomever she wants to the girl’s date dance.
“. . . she can ask whoever she wants . . . ” or “. . . she can ask whomever she wants . . . ”? Since we don’t use “he-ever” and “him-ever,” we’ll stick to substituting “he” and “him”: “ . . . she can ask he she wants . . . ” or “ . . . she can ask him she wants . . . ”? Still sounds a little strange, so let’s change word order again just a bit: Does “she want he” or does “she want him” ? She must want “him,” and him=whom, therefore “Of course, she can ask whomever she wants to the girl’s date dance.”

f. One last shot: “Who’s/whose going to remember how to use the who words from now on? Who/whom knows?” You’ll have to figure those two out on your own. Wanna know the “right” answers? Write a comment below, and I’ll answer you, after you’ve tried to figure it out for yourself! Good luck!

Have questions about writing (grammar, punctuation, getting published, etc.)? Brenda Bensch, M.A., a teacher of multiple decades’ experience in Utah’s university/high school/community ed. classrooms (English, fiction/non-fiction writing, study skills, drama, humanities, debate, etc.), invites you to “Ask The Teacher” by emailing your question to her or writing it as a comment at The ABC Writers Guild blog. She will answer you personally before the answer appears on the blog.

Brenda Bensch
or The ABC Writers Guild at

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