It’s one of those things you learned in English class but rarely hear in real life. Yet, just when you least expect it, “whom” appears out of nowhere.
When and why do people say “whom”? Using data on spoken and written English, we’ll show when English speakers most often use it – even in informal settings – and when you might want to consider using it too.
1. Quantity Word + “Of Whom”
Based on our research, “whom” is most often used in phrases like “all of whom,” “each of whom,” “either of whom,” etc. Here are some examples of this from our news site:
- A study on video games “looked at 3,274 people, all of whom were over 18 years old.”
- “The Faroe Islands are home to 50,000 people, most of whom live in Torshavn, the capital city.”
- A giraffe named “Forest” is “much taller than the two other giraffes at the zoo, both of whom are female.”
- A woman in Poland gave birth to six babies, “four of whom are girls.”
But how do we know that this is the most common usage ? Well, we searched through this library of American English from the past twenty years and found that “of” is, by far, the word that most often appears next to “whom.”
Then, we looked at examples from that library and also around the web and found that, most of the time, the prepositional phrase “of whom” came after a quantity-related word.
The cool thing is, “[quantity] + of whom” is also quite common in informal speech. For example, we searched through this library of TV show scripts from the six English-speaking countries, and found nearly 1200 instances of “of whom,” most of which come after a quantity-related word. Here are two examples:
- I have three sons, each of whom is the center of his own universe. (Home Improvement)
- He just wants to do a good job, unlike these two, one of whom forgot to wear shoes. (Man Up!)
So when you hear someone say “whom,” chances are, they’re using it in the structure “[quantity] + of whom”!
2. Preposition + “Whom”
The second most common way “whom” is used is with prepositions in general. If you look back at the chart above, you’ll notice that besides “of,” there are other prepositions, such as “with,” “to,” and “for.”
This isn’t a coincidence. These days, “whom” is almost always used after a preposition. In fact, a study found that American college students were likely to use “whom” after prepositions even when it was grammatically incorrect.
Here are some examples from the internal emails of a US company (made public after a scandal):
- Please let me know with whom I should work to gather this information.
- To whom should Ken send this letter?
“[Preposition] + whom” is used in formal and informal English. For example, below are some people having an informal conversation about creativity. You’ll notice one of them uses the phrase “with whom”:
3. “To Whom It May Concern”
Finally, a specific instance of “[preposition] + whom” that we should mention is the formal greeting, “To whom it may concern.”
This expression means “To whoever might care about this message,” and is used at the start of emails and letters. For example, if you are applying for a job and don’t know know the name of the recipient, you can use “To whom it may concern.”
Interestingly, this phrase has taken on a new life on the internet, where it has become a way to greet strangers online before telling them something they might not want to hear. The expression has even become an acronym: “TWIMC.”
TWIMC: If you don’t have anything constructive to say, you might want to check yourself. Your words are a reflection of your character. They can make you appear shades of beautiful or shades of ugly; you choose. pic.twitter.com/cx4V5zoHUP— Alwaysshinethelight (@Alwaysshinethe1) May 10, 2019
“Whom” or “Who”?
So far, we’ve covered three common situations where English speakers actually use the word “whom.” You might be wondering if it’s possible to replace “whom” with “who” in these cases.
In “To whom it may concern,” replacing “whom” with “who” would sound unnatural, since the phrase is a fixed expression. But what about in the other two cases?
1. Quantity + “Of Whom”
“Whom” in this case cannot be replaced with “who.” In fact, Lexico.com (a website run by Oxford University Press) calls this the “obligatory whom.”
✕ I have three sons, each of who is the center of his own universe.
✕ A woman in Poland gave birth to six babies, four of who were girls.
However, “whom” here can be replaced with another word – “them” – as long as the rest of the sentence is rephrased without the verb “to be.”
- I have three sons, each of them the center of his own universe.
- A woman in Poland gave birth to six babies, four of them girls.
2. Preposition + “Whom”
Sentences that use the “[preposition] + whom” structure can be rephrased with “who” as long as the preposition is moved after the verb (or the object of the verb).
- Please let me know who I should work with to gather this information.
- Who should Ken send this letter to?
In fact, “who … [preposition]” is more common than its whom counterpart in both informal and formal English. However, “[preposition] + whom” is still often used in informal contexts, because, well, English speakers sometimes think it flows better!
Final Word of Advice
We hope you now have a better idea of when the word “whom” is actually used. As a final tip, just remember that “whom” is almost always used after a preposition in modern English.
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