Who Versus Whom--Advanced

Beyond the basics of "who" and "whom."

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #98

It was almost exactly a year ago when I did the first show about who versus whom. In that show I only covered the simple cases, and lately I've been getting questions that made me think I should delve deeper into the topic. So today's topic is who versus whom  advanced.

The Advanced Who Versus Whom

Here's an example of the kind of questions that are coming in. Derrick from Oakland, CA, recently read a story in the Wall Street Journal about restaurants that offer tasting menus that pair wine with food, and he came across this sentence about the sommelier:

We never did meet his teammate ... who[m] he said works the room in his absence.

Derrick thought the whom seemed out of place and asked me to explain why. He's right, and I will have a quick and dirty tip for you, but first, I want to explain in grammatical terms why it should be who.

First, you have to separate out the clause that contains the who or whom. All you need to care about is how the who or whom functions within that clause.


In the example sentence We never did meet his teammate who he said works the room in his absencethe  last part (who he said works the room in his absence) is something called an adjectival clause. That just means the whole thing functions as an adjective to tell us more about the teammate. Who is the teammate? Someone who he says works the room in his absence.

The part that always seems to mess people up in clauses like that is the he says part. Someone who [he says] works the room in his absence.

It seems as if people see the he and think it might be the subject of the clause, but it's not. The good news is that he says is a separate clause within the adjectival clause, and you can just ignore it. It's parenthetical 
— an aside (1, 2). Take it out in your imagination as you look at the sentence or cross it out. Taking it out leaves you with the clause who works the room in his absence.

Web Extra: More on Who Versus Whom

Here is the progression of how we whittled down this sentence to just the clause that matters for deciding whether to use who or whom:

We never did meet his teammate who he said works the room in his absence.

We never did meet his teammate who he said works the room in his absence.

We never did meet his teammate who he said works the room in his absence.

Now that you've whittled down the sentence to just the clause you need to consider, it's a lot easier to decide between who and whom. In fact, you can use the simple trick I gave you a year ago: if you can hypothetically answer the question with him, use whom. They both end with the letter m. If you can't answer with him, use who. The reason is that you use whom when it's the object of the clause, and him is an object pronoun that is easier for people to remember than whom. For some reason people just seem to know when to use he and him, but they have trouble remembering the difference between who and whom.

So if we go back to the example sentence, the clause is who works the room in his absence. If you answer that question, the answer is HE works the room in his absence. Since the answer is he, and not him, you know the correct pronoun is who.

You could actually use the same trick without removing the he said clause from the sentence. You could ask Who did he say works the room in his absence? And the answer would be He says HE works the room in his absence. But I think it helps to know you can take out he said clause. The same holds true for clauses such as the man who they believe is Sir Fragalot, the man who she determined is Sir Fragalot, the man who Squiggly claims is Sir Fragalot, and the man who I say is Sir Fragalot?you can just ignore the they believe, she determined, Squiggly claims, and I say parts.

Web Extra: The Parenthetical Clause

The parenthetical clause doesn't have to be just two words such as they believe or she determined. It can be longer, as in the following examples:

       He is the man who Peter, Paul, and Mary heartily believe is Sir Fragalot.

       He is the man who Aardvark believes with all his heart is Sir Fragalot.

If you add the words to be to the previous examples, it makes whom the correct choice:

He is the man who they believe is Sir Fragalot. (Who is the subject of is. The answer to the question, "Who do they believe is Sir Fragalot?" is "He is Sir Fragalot." He equals who; they're both subject pronouns.

He is the man whom they believe to be Sir Fragalot. (Whom is the subject of the infinitive to be, and therefore it has to be in the objective case (2). The answer to the question "Whom do they believe Sir Fragalot to be?" is "They believe him to be Sir Fragalot." Him equals whom; they're both object pronouns. You can't remove they believe to be, it's not parenthetical.)

[I'm a little uneasy with my explanation on the final example. I have a credible reference, and I believe whom is the correct choice, but it's just not sitting right in my head. Listeners, do you have any thoughts on the matter?]

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1. Ryan, B. and O'Donnell, M. The Editor's Toolbox: A Reference Guide for Beginners and Professionals. 2001 Blackwell Publishing p.116-7. http://tinyurl.com/2cblbu (accessed March 6, 2008).

2. Kittredge, G.L. and  Farley, F.E. An Advanced English Grammar: With Exercises. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1913, p. 139.
http://tinyurl.com/yr2xpw (accessed March 6, 2008).

Additional Resources

Lutz, G. and  Stevenson, D. Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2005, p. 153-4.

Strumpf, M. and Douglas, A. The Grammar Bible. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004,  p. 281.

Wine Grapes, Amador County California image. Lee Coursey at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.