Who, whomandwhoseare common and important English words, yet they are often mixed up or misunderstood in speech and writing. Even experienced academics may have difficulty deciding how to use these words, especially when it comes to the difference betweenwhoandwhom. However, once you get the knack of it, deciding how to usewho,whoseandwhomcan be quite easy. First of all, let’s look at the definition of each word:
Whois a subject pronoun, meaning it is used in a sentence or clause as a subject. As you remember, the subject of a sentence is the one doing the action. In the sentences below,Harveyandtheyare the subjects.Harvey played racquetball with Jay. They met at the gym on Sunday.Whohas the meaning of what or which person(s) when it’s in its interrogative (questioning) form. You will often findwhois used as a question like this:
- Whois coming for dinner tonight?
- Whoare you?
- Whowas with you yesterday?
But the interrogative form of who is not always used as a direct question:
- We must find outwhothey are.
- I will decide what to do when we knowwhohas made the team.
Notice that in the above examples, the sentences would still make sense ifwhowas replaced withwhat personorwhich person/which persons.
Whocan also be used as a relative clause, often used to refer back to someone in a sentence, or to refer to a group of people or animals.
- My mother,whowas a tall woman, was a brilliant bridge player.
- The current generation is onewhoknows nothing of American history.
- The dogswhowag their tails are usually friendly.
Whomis an object pronoun, defined as the objective case ofwho. As we have seen above,whoacts as the subject of the sentence, whereaswhomacts as the object of the sentence. In the sentence used above about Harvey and Jay playing racquetball, Jay is the object.Harvey played racquetball with Jay.Notice thatwhomnever acts as the subject of the sentence in these examples:
- Sara met two men in the airport, one ofwhomshe has known since childhood in the village.
- The coach picked Alexander,whomhe believed to be the best goalie on the team.
- Whomshould I speak with about setting up the dance?
You can see from the examples above that the sentences would make sense if a) you replacedwhomwith an object pronoun:him, me, us, herorthem, or b) if you answered the question and the answer is an object pronoun.
- Sara met two men in the airport, one ofthemshe has known since childhood in the village.
- The coach picked Alexander, as he believedhim(Alexander) to be the best goalie on the team.
- You should speak withme/her/him/them/us?
Whoseis a possessive pronoun, which has three different functions:
- As the possessive case ofwho(used as an adjective).
- The coach chose someonewhoserecord is strong.
- I told the teacherwhosefault it was.
- As the possessive case of which (used as an adjective).
- We spoke to the manwhosename escaped me.
- A snakewhoseskin sheds annually.
- The one or ones belonging to a person or persons.
- Whosecar is parked in the driveway?
- Whoseticket is this?
- Whosecoat were you wearing?
Whose vs Who’s
Whoseandwho’sare homophones, meaning they sound almost identical when spoken. For that reason, the two words can be often confused in writing. As we have seen above,whoseis a possessive pronoun that is used to indicate possession.Who’sis the contracted form of who is, used in informal speech or for brevity. The best way to remember the difference betweenwhoseandwho’sis to see if the sentence still makes sense when replacing it withwho is.
- Whosebag is this? Whose is correct, as who is bag is this wouldn’t make sense.
- Who’sgoing to the party tonight? Who’s is correct, as who is going to the party tonight still makes sense.
- Whoseparty is it? Whose is correct, as who is party is it wouldn’t make sense.
- A man,whosename escapes me, called our house.Whoseis correct, aswho is name escapes mewouldn’t make sense.
When to use Who
In a sentence or clause,whowill be used as the subject or to refer back to the subject in a sentence. In its simplest terms, this meanswhowill be the part of the sentence or clause directly interacting with the main verb and performing the action.
- Whois going to the movies later?
- Whodoesn’t agree with me?
- John –whogot a new dog last week – needed to buy a stronger leash.
- He got a new dog, onewhobarked all night and slept all day.
- Simon and Danielle,whofelt claustrophobic, refused to take the elevator.
Remember that subjects do an action in a sentence, sowhocan usually be replaced by subject pronouns likehe, she, itandtheyand still make sense.
- Sheis going to the movies later?
- Hedoesn’t agree with me?
- John –hegot a new dog last week – needed to buy a stronger leash.
When to use Whom
In a sentence or clause,whomis used to refer to the object of a verb or preposition. Put simply,whomdoes not directly interact with the main verb or perform the action.
- Withwhomshould I go to the movies later?
- The lady towhomI spoke was French, not German.
- The boys were exhausted, most ofwhomhadn’t slept in days.
- Forwhomis the gift intended?
- James Madison, aboutwhomwe speak little nowadays, was a superb leader.
Remember that objects receive the action in a sentence, so whenwhomis used in a question, the answer can be expressed with object pronouns and like him, her and them.
- Withwhomshould I go to the movies later? Withhim!
- Forwhomis the gift intended? Forthem!
When to Use Whose
In a sentence or clause,whoseis used to as a possessive pronoun. We usewhosein a sentence to either indicate or to question who something belongs to.
- Whosepaintings are these?
- John,whosedog barked all night, is loathed by his neighbours.
- Let himwhoseconscience is clear step forward.
- Whosehouse shall we visit next?
- I have no doubtwhosemess it is.
Who is a Subject Pronoun
A personal subject pronoun is simply a pronoun that is the subject of the verb. It is the thing or person that performs the action of the verb. A subject pronoun decides how the verb is conjugated.
- Heis going to the store.
- Ilove you.
- Shewas not very tired.
- Theyare coming.
If we replace the personal subject pronounshe, sheandtheyin the above examples withwho, you will notice that the sentences become questions.
- Whois going to the store?Heis.
- Wholoves you?Ido!
- Whowasn’t very tired?Shewasn’t.
- Whois coming today?Theyare. *
*Whowill take the singular form when posing a question, even though we may be speaking of more than one person.
Of course,whocan still be used as a subject pronoun in a clause without needing to be a question.
- Mike,whowent to the store earlier, will be back shortly.
- Daphne,whois very tired, won’t be at work today.
- The Simpsons,whoare not coming today, hate Disneyland.
Whom is an Object Pronoun
An object pronoun is not used as the subject of the verb, but the object. It is receiving the action in the sentence, but not doing the action itself.
- Withwhomdid you travel to France?
In the sentence above, the subject pronounyouis performing the action (travelling to France), whereas the objectwhomis not performing the action (in a grammatical sense). We know thatwhomis replacing an object personal pronoun, because of how we would answer the question.
- Withwhomdid you travel to France? I travelled withhim/her/them.
- Aboutwhomis this written? It’s written abouthim.
- Towhomdoes this belong? It belongs toher.
- And towhomshould I address this invitation? You should address it tothem.
Notice that when we answer the questions, the object pronouns do not become the main subject of the verb. This tells us that the usage of whom was correct in the sentence.
Whose is a Possessive Pronoun
Possessive pronouns, such asher, hisandour, are used to indicate ownership by a person or thing. We usewhoseas a possessive pronoun if we wish to find out who owns something or as a clause when indicating ownership is important to the context of the sentence.
- Whosecat might be in the house?
- Tell me,whosebag was left behind?
- Can anyone guesswhosefamous essay was titled “The Lion and the Unicorn”?
- Frankie,whosefull name was Francesca, lied about her age.
- Dad,whosesocks always had holes in them, didn’t care how he looked.