Who or whom, who’s or whose?

The ‘W’ words are useful if you’re trying to understand or summarise a story, but who, whom, who’s and whose tend to cause problems. Here’s a quick guide to what they all mean and how they can be used.

Who v whom

Who and whom are both relative pronouns, which mean they relate to the person you’ve just been talking about. Note that they don’t relate to animals or things, just people. The difference is just one letter, but it signals that one of them stands for the subject (in the nominative case if you’ve ever done Latin) while the other stands for the object (in the accusative).

  • The subject of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that controls the verb, in other words the person or thing that’s ‘doing the doing’.
  • The object of a sentence is the noun or pronoun that is suffering the action the verb, in other words the person or thing that’s having something done to it.

For example, in the following sentence, ‘the girl’ is the subject, and ‘the boy’ is the object:

The girl tapped the boy on the shoulder.

We could also use pronouns, in which case ‘she’ is the subject, and ‘him’ is the object.

She tapped him on the shoulder.

Note that we use ‘him’ rather than ‘he’ in this case. That tells us that the boy is the object and not the subject. It’s the same with ‘who’ and ‘whom’. In fact, it’s the same letter – the letter ‘m’ – that tells us that ‘him’ and ‘whom’ are both the objects of the sentence, and that might be a good way to remember the difference.

For example, in the following sentence, ‘the girl’ is still the subject, so we use ‘who’:

They saw the girl who had tapped the boy on the shoulder.

In the next sentence, the boy is still the object, so we use ‘whom’:

They saw the boy whom the girl had tapped on the shoulder.

Note that neither who nor whom needs a comma before it in these cases. That’s because we are defining which people we’re talking about. It’s a bit like ‘which’ and ‘that’: ‘which’ describes things and needs a comma, but ‘that’ defines things and doesn’t. If we already know who people are and simply want to describe them, then we do use a comma.

They saw Patricia Smith, who had tapped the boy on the shoulder.

They saw Paul Jones, whom the girl had tapped on the shoulder.

In these cases, we know who the children are – Patricia and Paul – so all we’re doing is describing something that has happened. There is only one Patricia Smith and one Paul Jones, so we don’t need to define them. That means we need to use a comma in both cases.

I hope that all makes sense. Here are a few practice questions. Just decide in each case whether you should use ‘who’ or ‘whom’.

  1. They talked to Jim, who/whom lived in Stoke.
  2. He played football with the boy who/whom had red hair.
  3. She was friends with the girl who/whom played volleyball.
  4. Who/whom do you think will win the egg and spoon race?
  5. Who/whom did they put in prison?

Who’s v whose

The words ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ are homophones, which is another way of saying they sound the same but mean completely different things. ‘Who’s’ is short for ‘who is’ or ‘who has’ while ‘whose’ is a possessive pronoun that means ‘of whom the’ or ‘of which the’. For example, take these two sentences:

  • Who’s going to the cinema tonight?
  • He was a big man whose hands were larger than dinner plates.

The first means ‘Who is going to the cinema tonight?’ whereas the second means ‘He was a big man of whom the hands were larger than dinner plates’. The only reason we don’t say those things is that they’re a bit of a mouthful, so it’s easier to use ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’.

I hope that’s clear now. Here are a few practice questions. Just decide in each case whether you should use ‘who’s’ or ‘whose’.

  1. Who’s/whose in charge of the tennis rackets?
  2. Who’s/whose bag is this?
  3. He speaks to the woman who’s/whose behind the counter.
  4. She likes him to know who’s/whose boss.
  5. Who’s/whose been eating all the crisps?

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