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For Whom? Who Says?

Last night I flew home from teaching in South Carolina, and this morning I had an email from one of my new Carolina friends:

"I just thought of a question about something we didn’t cover: when to use who vs. whom. . . . Any quick tips?"

The quick tip is this: Who is used as a subject; whom is used as an object.

Explanation: Who is used in the same situations as I, he, we, they, and other subject pronouns. Whom is used where me, her, him, us, and other object pronouns fit.

Like this:

Who wrote the letter? (I, he, we wrote the letter.)

Whom shall I ask? (I shall ask him, her, them.)

The tricky part is that whom is often avoided, even by careful speakers and writers. That’s because it seems more natural to say "Who shall I ask?" and "Who will you vote for?" In both of these sentences whom is correct, but who is more commonly used.

Once you know the rule, you can decide whether a situation requires perfect grammar or natural-sounding speech. Then choose accordingly.

Different language for different places? Sure! In South Carolina, I was special as "Miss Lynn." Back home in Seattle, I’m just plain old Lynn.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.