When Not to Use “Whom” – Even in Formal Situations

As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.

American writer Calvin Trillin

While this quote isn’t entirely true, using “whom” in many cases will make you sound overly formal. Yes, even in formal situations. 

So today, let’s look at when you really don’t need to use “whom.”

1. Questions

“Whom” is uncommon in questions even in formal settings. For example, if you call a company’s customer service department, you might hear the agent ask something like:

  • Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with today?

However, you are more likely to hear “Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with today?” 

And even in formal professional environments, you would not hear people using “whom” in questions. An example is this meeting by the Board of England’s National Health Service. 

You’ll notice that at 15:48, one of the board members asks the question “Who are we seeking to affect?” – not “Whom are we seeking to affect?”

2. In Sayings and Expressions

Some English sayings and expressions use “who” as an object. 

  • It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.
  • It depends on who you ask.

You might wonder if you should say “It’s whom you know” or “It depends on whom you ask” in formal settings. Based on our research, the answer is “no.”

For speaking, we found many examples of people saying “It’s who you know” in formal situations, such as this meeting at the White House, and this business school lecture. We were not able to find any examples of people saying “It’s whom you know.”

And in writing, we found that it is also uncommon to switch to “whom.” For example, a search for “depends on whom you ask” and “depends on who you ask” in major news websites across six English-speaking countries show that even in formal news writing, the “who” version is preferred by all news sites except the New York Times.

Similarly, you wouldn’t want to switch the “who’s” in the following expressions with “whom’s,” no matter how formal the situation:

  • Who are you kidding?
  • Who does he think he is?

3. In Adjective Clauses

Your English textbooks may have contained sentences like this:

  • Sarah is the woman whom I lent my umbrella to.

“Whom I have lent my umbrella to” is an adjective clause which describes the subject of the sentence. (You can review adjective clauses in our lessons on “where,” “when,” “why”, “who” and “which,” and “whose” and “whom.”)

In normal English, we’d simply say one of the following:

  • Sarah is the woman who I lent my umbrella to.
  • Sarah is the woman that I lent my umbrella to.
  • Sarah is the woman I lent my umbrella to.

As you can see, people normally opt for a simpler pronoun  (i.e. “who” or “that”) or no pronoun at all. So if you intentionally use a pronoun and then choose “whom,” you could sound pretty butler-like!

But what about formal English? Using “whom” in adjective clauses is acceptable in academia, journalism, and government. For example, here it is in a speech by a former British prime minister:

  • I am pleased to be hosting Prime Minister Turnbull – whom I have known for many years – on his first visit to Downing Street.

However, using “whom” is still more standard in written English than in spoken English, so when speaking at formal events, many people in these fields will simply use “who.” For example, here’s a video of a senior advisor to a former US president and a video of a British law professor both saying “who I have known.”.

So it’s a good idea to use “whom” in adjective clauses in academic papers, but don’t feel pressured to use it in speaking.

4. If You Don’t Know How to Use It

Our final piece of advice is that if you aren’t sure whether you should use “whom,” simply don’t. The style guide of The Guardian agrees:

If you are not sure, it is much better to use “who” when “whom” would traditionally have been required than to use “whom” incorrectly for “who.”

Also keep in mind that people have been misusing “whom” for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary records examples of people misusing “whom” as early as the year 1467. In addition,  Shakespeare made this mistake, as do many respected writers today.

But what should you do on standardized tests like the TOEFL or the IELTS? It’s unlikely tests like these will penalize you for using “who” instead of “whom” or vice versa, because these are mistakes educated native speakers make too. For example, to get the highest score on the IELTS speaking test, you’re allowed to make “‘slips’ characteristic of native speaker speech.”

So just learn these three cases where “whom” is used and use “who” for everything else! This way, you can focus on more important things like becoming fluent in English, improving your reading and listening comprehension, and building meaningful relationships with your English skills.

Speaking of which, did you know that you could do all of that on Engoo? Register today!