What's the difference?
“Who” and “whom” have to be two of the most difficult words in English. Luckily, we've already spent two articles (episode 44 and episode 200) on the ins and outs. Unfortunately, though, some people are still confused. They may even find themselves agreeing with William Safire, who apparently once said, “When whom is correct, recast the sentence” (1).
Well, although we might not like “whom,” we should probably keep it around. Today we’re delving into yet one more difficult sentence involving “who” or “whom,” but first, let’s review what we know.
Review of “Who” and “Whom”
In the first episode about “who” and “whom” (2), we learned that “you use who when you're referring to the subject of a clause and whom when you are referring to the object of a clause.” We explained that the main problem isn’t the word “who,” because “most people don't go around throwing unneeded whoms into their sentences. So remember, you use whom when you are referring to the object of a clause.”
We ended the episode with this helpful tip: “Like whom, the pronoun him ends with m. When you're trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the answer to the question could be he or him. That's the trick: if you can answer the question being asked with him, use whom, and it's easy to remember because they both end with m.”
The second episode about “who” and “whom” (3) wrestled with this more difficult sentence: “We never did meet his teammate ... who[ he said works the room in his absence.” This sentence requires the word “who,” not “whom.” You need to ignore the words “he said,” and just deal with the clause “who works the room.” “Whom works the room” doesn't make sense. And if you apply the “him” tip from the first episode about this topic, you ask yourself, “Which person works the room?” The answer to the question is his teammate—he works the room--so we can still use the trick to tell that “who” is correct.
Our Current Problem
Now we’ll move on to the tricky sentence that concerns us in this episode. This time, we’re dealing with the “who”/“whom” question and linking verbs. Mark J. is wondering about this sentence: “If you could be anyone, who would you be?” Or is it “whom would you be”? That’s easy. Just pretend you’re Mr. Safire and recast the sentence: “If you could be anyone, which person would you be?” Problem solved. The end. Just kidding. Sometimes, you can write “which person” to avoid the problem, but in this case we'll do a small amount of detective work to find our answer.
Review of “It is I”
First, though, one more small detour. We need to review another topic that we covered in an earlier episode: “It is I” versus “It is me.” Here’s what we said about it (4): “Linking verbs are words like is, was, were, appear, and seem. They don't describe an action so much as describe a state of being. When pronouns follow these non-action verbs, you use the subject pronouns such as I, she, he, they, and we.”
Before we continue, I want everyone to take a deep breath and relax. We've reviewed a lot so far. You may want to press pause for a minute and go munch on a cookie. Or if you’re really dedicated, you could reread the three articles referenced here. Once you’ve eaten a cookie or reviewed, you’ll be ready to hear the explanation about Mark J.’s question. Everyone ready? Excellent.
The Meat of the Episode
The sentence we’re concerned with here is this: “If you could be anyone, who (or whom) would you be?” We can make our lives easier by changing the conditional tense to present tense: “Who (or Whom) are you?” instead of “Who (or Whom) would you be?” Now that we can see the question for the simple question that it is, it's easier to see that it should be “who”: If you answer the question using the “him” trick, you get “I am he.” That may be good for a laugh, but it is in fact the same kind of statement as “It is I.” There is a pronoun following a linking verb, and we’ve seen already that this pronoun must be in the form of a subject--“he.” And as you'll recall, you only use “whom” when the answer could be “him.”
Before you eat another cookie as a reward for dealing with this difficult topic, let’s recast Mark J.’s question so that we get “whom” as the answer—just for fun: “If you could talk to anyone, who/whom would you talk to?” Here it’s clear that “whom” is correct, because you're dealing with an action verb and would answer the question, “I would talk to him.”
You can still use the “him” test, but when the answer has a linking verb, remember that subject pronouns follow linking verbs.
As you can see, deciding between “who” and “whom” can be tough, and it's even trickier when a linking verb is involved. You can still use the “him” test, but when the answer has a linking verb, remember that object pronouns follow linking verbs: “Who is it? It is I, Grammar Girl.”
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of The Grammar Devotional, featuring 365 bite-size writing tips, fun quizzes and puzzles, and efficient memory tricks.
1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 836.
2. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/who-versus-whom. Accessed October 21, 2009.
3. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/who-versus-whom-advanced. Accessed October 21, 2009.
4. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/it-is-i-versus-it-is-me. Accessed October 21, 2009.
[Who/Who do you think you are? [Answer: Who do you think you are. The test answer, which contains a linking verb, is “I think I am he.”]
[Who/Who does Sarah want to take to the dance? [Answer: Whom does Sarah want to take to the dance? The test answer is “Sarah wants to take him to the dance.”]
He's the boy [who/who she said takes the best pictures. [Answer: He's the boy who she said takes the best pictures. The test answer is “She said he takes the best pictures.”]
I wonder [who/who the winner is. [Answer: I wonder who the winner is. The test answer, which contains a linking verb, is “The winner is he.”]