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Who (pronoun)

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Who (pronoun)

The pronoun who, in English, is an interrogative pronoun and a relative pronoun, used chiefly to refer to humans.

Its derived forms include whom, an objective form the use of which is now generally confined to formal English; the possessive form whose; and the emphatic form whoever (also whosoever and whom(so)ever; see also -ever).


  • Etymology 1
  • Uses 2
    • As interrogative pronoun 2.1
    • As relative pronoun 2.2
  • Usage of whom 3
    • Tendency to replace whom with who 3.1
    • Rules for usage of who and whom 3.2
      • Ambiguous cases 3.2.1
  • Notes 4
  • Bibliography 5


The word who derives from the Old English hwā. The spelling who does not correspond to the word's pronunciation /huː/; it is the spelling that represents the expected outcome of hwā, while the pronunciation represents a divergent outcome – for details see Pronunciation of English ⟨wh⟩. The word is cognate with Latin quis and Greek ποιός.

The forms whom and whose derive respectively from the Old English dative and genitive forms of hwā, namely hwām and hwæs.


As interrogative pronoun

Who and its derived forms can be used as interrogative pronouns, to form questions:

  • Who did that?
  • Whom [less formal: Who] did you meet this morning?
  • To whom did you speak? (informal: Who did you speak to?)
  • Whoever could have done that? (emphatic form, expressing disbelief)
  • Whose bike is that? (use of whose as possessive determiner/adjective; see possessive and English possessive)
  • Whose do you like best? (use of whose as possessive pronoun)

The same forms (though not usually the emphatic ones) are used to make indirect questions:

  • We don't know who did that.
  • I wonder who(m) she met this morning.

The corresponding form when referring to non-humans is what (which has the emphatic form whatever, and no possessive form). Another similar interrogative is which – this can refer to either humans or non-humans, normally implying selection from a particular set, as either interrogative pronoun (Which do you prefer?) or interrogative determiner (adjective) (Which man should I choose?). What can also be used as a determiner (What book are you reading?), but who cannot.

Which, who, and what as interrogatives can be either singular or plural. (Examples: Which is the highest hill? Which are the highest hills? Who was born in 1920? Who were king and queen in 1920?). But who and what often take a singular verb regardless of any supposed number; the questions Who wants some cake? and What's in the bag? do not presuppose anything about number in possible responses: I want some cake, or All of us want some; and A rabbit is in the bag, or Five coins and a bus ticket.[1]

As relative pronoun

The other chief use of who and its derivatives are in the formation of relative clauses:

  • These are the men who work upstairs.
  • This is Tom, who(m) I believe you have already met.
  • I helped some lads whose car had broken down.

The corresponding form for non-humans is which, although whose can be used as a possessive in relative clauses even when referring to non-humans: I will have to fix the car whose engine I ruined.

In restrictive relative clauses, when not preceded by a preposition, both who(m) and which can be replaced by that, or (if not the subject of the clause) by zero.


In relative clauses, who (like other relative pronouns) takes the number (singular or plural) of its antecedent. Who also takes the person (first, second or third) of its antecedent:[2]

  • I, who am having a hard time right now, won't be able to help you.
  • I, a tired old man who is fed up with all your nonsense, refuse to help you.

Who and whom can also be used to form free relative clauses (those with no antecedent). The emphatic forms are often used for this purpose: I'll take who(ever) [formal: whom/whom(so)ever] you choose. This corresponds to the use of what(ever) when referring to non-humans. (For the choice between who(ever) and whom(ever) in formal English, see Ambiguous cases below.)

The emphatic forms can also be used to make adverbial clauses, as in Whoever you choose, I'll be satisfied.

For more details, see English relative clauses.

Usage of whom

Tendency to replace whom with who

According to traditional prescriptive grammar, who is the subjective (nominative) form only, while whom is the corresponding objective form (just as him is the objective form corresponding to he). However it has long been common, particularly in informal English, for the uninflected form who to be used in both cases, thus replacing whom in the contexts where the latter was traditionally used.

In 1975, S. Potter noted, in Changing English, that "nearly half a century ago Edward Sapir predicted the demise of whom, showing at great length that it was doomed because it was 'psychologically isolated' from the objective pronouns me, us, him, her, them on the one hand, and the invariables which, what, that and where, when, how, why on the other."[3] By 1978 the whowhom distinction was identified as having "slipped so badly that [it is] almost totally uninformative".[4] According to the OED (2nd edition, 1989), whom is "no longer current in natural colloquial speech". Lasnik and Sobin argue that surviving occurrences of whom are not part of ordinary English grammar, but the result of extra-grammatical rules for producing "prestige" forms.[5]

According to Mair, the decline of whom has been speeded by the fact that it is one of relatively few synthetic (inflected) remnants in the principally analytical grammar of Modern English.[6] It has also been claimed that the decline of whom is more advanced in the interrogative case than in the relative case, this possibly being related to the degree of complexity of the syntax.[7]

However, some prescriptivists continue to defend whom as the only "correct" form in functions other than the subject.[8] Mair notes that: "whom is moribund as an element of the core grammar of English, but is very much alive as a style marker whose correct use is acquired in the educational system [, where it is taught]. [The use of whom] is highly restricted, but rather than disappear entirely, the form is likely to remain in use for some time to come because of its over prestige in writing."[9]

Whom is also sometimes used by way of hypercorrection, in places where it would not even be considered correct according to traditional rules, as in Whom do you think you are?[10] For more examples see the Ambiguous cases section below.

Retention of the whowhom distinction often co-occurs with another stylistic marker of formal or "prestige" English – avoidance of the stranded preposition. This means that whom can frequently be found following a preposition, in cases where the usual informal equivalent would use who and place the preposition later in the sentence. For example:

  • Formal: To whom did you give it?
  • Informal: Who did you give it to?

In relative clauses, movement of the preposition further allows who to be replaced by that or the empty string:

  • Formal: He is someone to whom I owe a great deal.
  • Informal: He is someone who I owe a great deal to or ...someone that I owe... or ...someone I owe...

In 1990 William Safire suggested: "The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence. This keeps a huge section of the hard disk of your mind available for baseball averages."[11]

Rules for usage of who and whom

In the types of English in which whom is used (which are generally the more formal varieties, as described in the section above), the general grammatical rule is that who is the subjective (nominative) form, analogous to the personal pronouns I, he, she, we, they, etc., while whom is the objective (oblique) form, analogous to me, him, her, us, them, etc. Thus who is used as a verb subject, while whom is used as an indirect or direct object of a verb or as the object (complement) of a preposition.


  • As verb subject: Who is waiting over there? He is someone who works hard.
  • As verb object: Whom do you support? She is someone whom many people admire.
  • As preposition complement: On whom do you plan to rely? These are the players of whom I am most proud.

Notice that in a relative clause, the form depends on the role of the pronoun in the relative clause, not that of its antecedent in the main clause. For example, I saw the man who ate the pie – not whom, since who is the subject of ate; it makes no difference that its antecedent (the) man is the object of saw.

In the position of predicative expression, i.e. as the complement of forms of the copula verb be, the form who is used, and considered correct, rather than whom. (Compare the case of the personal pronouns, where the subjective form is traditionally considered correct, although the objective forms are more commonly used – see English personal pronouns: Case usage.)

  • Who were those people?
  • Who is this? Compare: this is I (traditionally correct); this is me (normal usage).

Ambiguous cases

A problem sometimes arises in constructions like this:

  • Beethoven, who you say was a great composer, wrote only one opera.

Use of who here is normal, and to replace it with whom would appear grammatically incorrect, since the pronoun is the subject of was, not the object of say. (One would write You say he [not him] was a great composer.) Nevertheless whom is quite commonly encountered, and even defended, in sentences of this type. It may arise from confusion with a form like:

  • Beethoven, whom you believe [or whom you believe to be] a great composer, wrote only one opera.

In this case whom is used correctly according to the traditional rules, since it is now the object of the verb believe. (One would write You believe him [not he] (to be) a great composer.)

The use of whom in sentences of the first type (Beethoven, whom you say was a great composer...) – referred to as subject whom – can therefore be regarded as a hypercorrection, resulting from awareness of a perceived need to correct who to whom in sentences of the second type. However examples of this apparently ungrammatical usage can be found throughout the history of English. The OED traces it back to the 15th century, while Jespersen cites even earlier examples from Chaucer.[12] More examples are given below:

  • Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drown'd, [...] (Shakespeare, The Tempest, III, 3)
  • [...] going to seek the grave / Of Arthur, whom they say is kill'd to-night / On your suggestion. (Shakespeare, King John, IV, 2)
  • [...] the rest of their company rescued them, and stood over them fighting till they were come to themselves, all but him whom they thought had been dead; [...] (Defoe, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Chapter 6, Part 1. Use of whom here may be due partly to the proximity of him.)
  • But if others were involved, it was Harris and Klebold whom students said seemed the tightest, who stood apart from the rest of their clique. (From The Age newspaper, Melbourne, Australia, April 1999, in an article syndicated from the Washington Post. The original article had the "correct" who.[13] Note that the continuation with the parallel construction who stood apart illustrates how the use of subject whom can lead to inconsistencies.)
  • He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? (King James Bible, Matthew 16:15. Technically whom here is not a subject, but the complement of the copula am; but in this position too it is who that would be expected according to the traditional grammatical rules as given in the section above, as it would be in Who am I?)

Doubts can also arise in the case of free relative clauses, formed with who(m), who(m)ever or who(m)soever. Modern guides to English usage say that the relative pronoun should take the case appropriate to their internal clause, not the function performed by that clause within an external clause.[14] For example, it is correct to write I’ll talk to whoever [not whomever] will listen, since whoever is the subject of will listen (regardless of the fact that the entire clause whoever will listen serves as the object of talk to). On the other hand, Whomever you choose will suit me is correct, since whomever is now the object of choose (despite the fact that the entire relative clause is the subject of will suit).[15]


  • Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone. (In the internal clause, whoever is the subject of is.)
  • Whom you choose will be placed on this list. (In the internal clause, whom is the object of choose.)

In sentences of this type, however, as with the "subject whom" examples above, use of whom(ever) is sometimes found in places where it would not be expected grammatically, due to the relative complexity of the syntax. In fact in Middle English it was standard for the form of the pronoun to depend on the function in the external clause; the modern rule came about through re-analysis of the pronoun as primarily an element of the internal clause.[16]


  1. ^ Huddleston and Pullum (2002; pp. 505–506) call this default to the singular an "override", resembling "semantically motivated overrides" with collective nouns: "The committee have not yet come to a decision" (their example, p. 501).
  2. ^ Bernstein, The Careful Writer, Atheneum (1986), p. 479.
  3. ^ Potter, 1975, p. 151.
  4. ^ Wanner, Eric; Michael Maratsos (1978). "An ATN approach to Comprehension". In Halle, M.; Bresnan, J.; Miller, G. Linguistic theory and psychological reality. Cambridge, MA:  
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Mair, 2006, p. 141.
  7. ^ Yoko & Michiko, 2009, p. 189.
  8. ^ Aarts, 2004, p. 71.
  9. ^ Mair, 2006, pp. 143, 144.
  10. ^ Brinten & Arnovick, 2006, p. 440.
  11. ^  
  12. ^  
  13. ^ "original ''Washington Post'' article". 1999-04-22. Retrieved 2014-08-19. 
  14. ^ Glenn, Loretta; Gray (2007). The Writer's Harbrace Handbook, Brief. Cengage Learning. p. 339.  
  15. ^ The current Chicago Manual of Style:
    [...] determining the proper case can be confusing when the pronoun serves a function (say, nominative) in a clause that itself serves a different function (say, objective) in the main sentence. It is the pronoun’s function in its clause that determines its case. In the first example below, the entire clause whoever will listen is the object of the preposition to. But in the clause itself, whoever serves as the subject, and that function determines its case. Similarly, in the second sentence whomever is the object of choose in the clause, so it must be in the objective case even though the clause itself serves as the subject of the sentence.
    WRONG: I’ll talk to whomever will listen.
    RIGHT: I’ll talk to whoever will listen.
    WRONG: Whoever you choose will suit me.
    RIGHT: Whomever you choose will suit me.
    As the second example above shows, a further distraction can arise when the who clause contains a nested clause, typically of attribution or identification (here, you choose). CMOS16, at 5.63 (" 'Who' versus 'whom' ")
  16. ^ Heidi Quinn (September 2005). The distribution of pronoun case forms in English. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 331.  


  • Glenn, Loretta; Gray (2007). The Writer's Harbrace Handbook, Brief. Cengage Learning. p. 339.  
  • Brinten, L.; Arnovick (2009). The English Language: A Linguistic History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Mair, C. (2009). Twentieth-Century English: History, Variation, and Standardization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Potter, S. (1975). Changing English. London: The Trinity Press.  
  • Arts, F. (2004). "Relative Who And Whom: Prescriptive Rules And Linguistic Reality". American Speech 69: 71–79.  
  • Yoko, I.; Y. Michiko (2009). "Relative and Interrogative Who/Whom in Contemporary Professional American English". Germanic Languages and Linguistic Universals pages=177–191. 
  • Wanner, Eric; Michael Maratsos (1978). "An ATN approach to Comprehension". In Halle, M.; Bresnan, J.; Miller, G. Linguistic theory and psychological reality. Cambridge, MA:  
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