Choosing the Right Pronoun and Who or Whom
Identifying Subject and Object Group Pronouns
Of the many kinds of pronouns, the following cause the most difficulty:
Subject Group: I, she, he, they, we, who
Object Group: me, her, him, them, us, whom
A pronoun in the subject group may be used as the subject of a verb:
She is my sister.
(She is the subject of the verb is.)
We students studied hard.
(We is the subject of the verb studied.)
Omar is taller than I.
(This sentence is not written out in full. It means “Omar is taller than I am.” I is the subject of the verb am.)
Hai plays as well as they.
(This sentence is not written out in full. It means “Hai plays as well as they do.” They is the subject of the verb do.)
A pronoun from the subject group is also used when the word means the same as the subject:
The kid in the red coat is he.
(He is a word that means the same as the subject boy. Therefore, the pronoun from the subject group is used.)
It was she all right.
(She means the same as the subject it. Therefore, the pronoun from the subject group is used.)
Note: Modern usage of these pronouns allows some exceptions to this rule. “It is me” and “It is us” may be used in informal speech instead of the grammatically correct “It is I” and “It is we.”
Pronouns in the object group are used for all other purposes:
The pronouns used in the following examples are not used as subjects of sentences, nor are they used as words that mean the same as subjects. Therefore, they come from the object group.
He came with Emra and me.
(A good way to tell which pronoun to use is to leave out the extra name: He came with me.)
He gave us kids gifts.
(He gave us gifts.)
Choosing Between Who and Whom
Like the personal pronouns (she/her, he/his, they/them, etc.), the pronoun who is used in the subject group, and whom is used for the object group. Who and whom are used as interrogative pronouns and as relative pronouns.
Who and whom are interrogative pronouns when used to ask a question.
Who broke their leg?
(The subject form is used because who is the subject of broke.)
Whom did Shema choose?
(The object form is used because whom receives the action of did choose.)
Note: You may find it helpful to substitute she, he, or they for who and her, him, or them for whom. If she, he, or they fits the sentence, then who will be correct. If her, him, or them fits, then use whom.
Who broke their leg? —or— He broke his leg?
(You wouldn’t say, “Him broke his leg?” Therefore, choose who, the subject group.)
Whom did Shema choose? —or— Shema did choose them. (Reword questions into statements.)
(You wouldn’t say, “Shema did choose they.” Therefore, choose whom, the object case.)
When who and whom are used to begin a subordinate clause, they are relative pronouns. The case of the pronoun beginning a subordinate clause is determined by its use in the clause. The case is not affected by any word outside the clause. Use who for the subject of the clause and whom for the object.
Martin Luther King, Jr., whom protesters adored, fought against oppression.
(The subordinate clause is whom protesters adored. Would you substitute he or him? “protesters adored him.”)
Anybody who orders now will receive a free gift.
(The subordinate clause is who orders now. Would you substitute they or them? “They order now.”)*
*Indefinite pronouns like “anybody” are pronouns that do not refer to specific persons or things. When indefinite pronouns are used as antecedents, the pronouns that follow them should be gender neutral unless the gender identity of the persons is known.
Note: Although whom is becoming uncommon in spoken English, the distinction between who and whom in subordinate clauses is usually observed in writing.