Common mistakes: That vs. who vs. whom

Why and when to use these sometimes confusing pronouns.

Why and when to use these sometimes confusing pronouns

They say the devil’s in the details, and few aspects of English grammar are more impish than who vs. that and who vs. whom.

As is the case with many grammatical inconsistencies, using the wrong pronoun will not result in your being misunderstood. To many you may even sound correct. But isn’t it heavenly to know how to use which one—and why!

Let’s explore these little rascals, starting with who vs.that.

The relative pronoun who refers to persons. The relative pronoun that refers to things.

Who rarely is used mistakenly in writing or in speaking when one is referring to things. However, people often mistakenly use that when they mean who.

Check out the following incorrect uses of that. They may sound right, but they aren’t.

Incorrect:

  • The people that need the services have never bought from us before.
  • Those that like our original shampoo will love our new formula.
  • She is the one that handled the delivery so well.

In each sentence, the relative pronoun relates to a person or persons, and that calls for the use of who.

Correct:

  • The people who need the services have never bought from us before.
  • Those who like our original shampoo will love our new formula.
  • She is the one who handled the delivery so well.

Speaking of the devil, let’s move on to who vs. whom.

Although the pronouns who and whom refer to a person or persons, their applications are different. One is subjective; the other, objective. Let’s take a look at how they should be used.

As a subject:

  • Who wants more candy?
  • Tom, who earned his degree from Harvard, starts his new job on Monday.
  • I’m going to find out who is responsible.

As an object:

  • To whom do you intend to send the report?
  • Jan really enjoyed entertaining Fred and Judy, with whom she had attended college.
  • Whom did Jan entertain?
  • They were entertained by whom?

The same principle applies to the pronouns whoever and whomever.

As a subject:

  • Whoever broke that window will have to pay for it.

As an object:

  • I will vote for whomever the president endorses.

Who and whom can also refer to animals—usually pets or those with a name. Which brings us back to that, which you’d use for other creatures.

  • Sam bought a new blanket for his dog Missy, who just gave birth to a litter of four.
  • Firemen rescued the cat that climbed up the hickory tree.
Remember these tips, and you’ll have to agree: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

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