Cynthia is a digital marketer, writer, and artist. She writes about a variety of topics, especially digital marketing, languages & culture.
When to Use Who and Whom
Grammar novices and experienced writers alike have such trouble with who vs. whom. They’re not interchangeable. Thankfully, a grammar error with who or whom is mostly overlooked in the English language, especially in the United States. Many writers and grammar-conscious people still ask how to use them, however. Read on to find out about how Hubert the Caterpillar uses who vs. whom.
Who and the Caterpillar Hubert
Hubert the caterpillar inched along. He was quite hungry. He hadn’t eaten since he came out of his egg.
He was a small, dark caterpillar. He almost blended in with the chocolate meringue pie that he smelled in the air.
He began munching on some pie when all of a sudden, he saw two eyes staring at him. He thought those eyes looked bigger than the pie!
“Who are you?” the two big eyes asked. Hubert was confused as to how eyes could talk, but then he realized a very BIG mouth was under those eyes.
Hubert gulped. “B-b-but, first I must ask you, ‘Who are you’?”
“I’m the human with the pie that you’re eating. I’m very protective of my chocolate.”
“Oops. Sorry. I was thinking that it was soo good, I couldn’t help myself. The sugar is a little much, though. It’s upsetting my stomach a bit. Would you mind putting me on a leaf?”
“You never answered my question,” said the human.
“Oh dear. I’m Hubert. I’m really hungry, too.”
“Are you the one who’s been eating my apples?”
“Um, no. Perhaps my relatives did. I must say I am eyeing your watermelon over there.”
The human lifted Hubert onto her finger. “Hubert, I’m glad to know you. Now, please, if you run into the caterpillar who has been eating holes in my fruits and vegetables, please tell him to kindly eat the leaves in the forest. Besides, I’m sure they’re better for his digestive system.”
Hubert patted his stomach with about ten of his hands. Who would put so much sugar in a meringue pie? “Well, if you put me on that leaf over there, I’ll be on my way. But, I’m sorry, to whom am I speaking?
“Oh, yes, Hubert. I’m Mallory. That’s my name. That's who I am.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet someone who is so nice and willing to share such good food.”
“Um, Hubert, for starters, humans don’t generally talk to caterpillars and expect a response. Second, I didn’t share it, you came along and ate it,” Mallory smiled.
“Oops. I did, didn’t I? But, I am not the one who ate holes in your garden. I merely enjoyed some meringue pie. May I have some more?”
“Is that your stomach grumbling? Maybe you’d better stop thinking of meringue pie. Help me find those other caterpillars who are eating holes in everything.
Who, Whom and Butterfly Wings!
Hubert looked around. Judging by the watermelons, honeydews, tomatoes, peas, peppers and even herbs that had holes, he thought he was going to be meeting some rather plump caterpillars in his near future.
Hubert inched along. A few leaves away, he found a mound of furry caterpillar. “Excuse me, Sir, but who are you?” Hubert asked.
“What do you mean ‘who am I’?” the caterpillar replied. He was in quite a bad mood. His stomach was grumbling terribly and he was massaging it with five of his hands. “Who are YOU?”
“Sir, I will not answer unless you tell me to whom I am speaking…first!”
“Sir Eatzlotz, that’s who and I enjoy your grammar, too.”
Hubert thought it odd that Eatzlotz should talk about grammar at this most inopportune but opportune moment.
“Thank you, sir. I gather your tummy is a little upset, too, because it’s making a lot of noise.” Hubert put four hands up to his ears. “That lady-human over there has told me that caterpillars have eaten holes in her garden. Do you know whom?
Eatzlotz licked his fingers. “Nope, sure don’t,” he said, with a sudden lapse of good grammar.
Hubert shuddered. Even if it could be this guy, he didn’t want to associate with him too much more. He sounded like a fuzzy monster with bad grammar. “I’ll just be on my way, then,” Hubert said and inching away.
Hubert climbed onto another plant and immediately happened upon two smaller caterpillars. “Pardon me. Do you know who has been eating holes in Miss Mallory’s garden? She’s the human with all the food.”
The two caterpillars just stared. They each had ten niblets of cheese in ten different hands. They didn’t respond, either. They just kept eating and loudly smacking their lips.
Hubert kept going. He hopped to another leaf and happened upon yet another caterpillar eating something orange. It was sweet-smelling.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. Could you tell me where you got that good food?”
She looked over at Hubert. Using her head – because her mouth was full – she pointed over to the garden.
“Ooh, I see,” Hubert sighed. “Would you mind saving some for my friend Mallory? She’s the lady who has all the food. She needs some for herself, you know.”
Hubert finally solved the mystery. He found one caterpillar who had eaten some of the food. He suspected that there were others, but for now, hopefully this caterpillar would spread the word. Besides, they might fall into a food coma if they ate too much.
Suddenly, Hubert himself fell into a food coma. The meringue pie made him sleepy. He covered up with a leaf and went to sleep. Wouldn’t you know, when he woke up, he had wings!
From the little story about the caterpillar and using who and whom, you can gather a few things about the uses of these words:
- Who is used, generally, before a verb. He's the one who ate the pie. The word who comes before the verb ate.
- Whom generally comes after the verb in a sentence. Mallory wanted to know whom Hubert talked. The word whom comes after wanted and to know.
- When all else fails, use the he/him trick. If it's a question, answer the question and substitute he/him in for who/whom. If you would use he, then you will use who; if you use him, then you will need to use whom: Whom did she ask? She asked him. So, you substitute whom in for him.
- When you have a statement, substitute in he/him to find out if you use who or whom: She wondered to whom she should ask her holey questions. Substitute in him: She wondered if she should ask her holey questions to him.
More on Who and Whom:
- Who knows the answer? He knows the answer. Therefore, you use who.
- There was only one caterpillar who ate the food? This really is a two-clause sentence. Make it simple: There was only one caterpillar. He ate the food. In this case, you will use who.
- I need someone who is brown and fluffy. Again, this can be broken down into two sentences. Then you sub in he. I need someone. He is brown and fluffy.
- If you look more closely at the word who, you'll find that who is the word that is doing the action. Whom receives the action.
- Who's is the contraction of the two words who is and sometimes who has. Whenever you would use who is in a sentence, you can substitute who's.
- Whose is when you want to show possession of an object. It's a possessive pronoun. Whose chocolate meringue pie is this?
- The word whom always follows a preposition, usually to, by, of, about, or from. There are many other prepositions, but these are the most common. He addressed the Board of Caterpillars, "To whom it may concern..."
Find Out Your "Who" Knowledge
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.