You know how lower-level officials talk when they’re trying to sound important? It’s a pseudo-formality that combines overly complex sentences with misused terms and unnecessarily long words. “Irrespective”, “per se” and “vis a vis” all make regular, and incorrect, appearances, but nothing so instantly says, “I don’t know what I’m talking about” as a misused “whom”.
I actually find it endearing. But if you’d rather come off as mind-searingly brainy, than aww-look-at-you-tryingly cute, read on.
“Whom” is a word I reserve for very special occasions, like when I’m writing a snooty complaint email, or trying to look educated in front of my grandmother. Every other time, in modern usage ‘who’ mostly does the trick. It’s not strictly correct, but then in English, what is?
When to use ‘whom’, and why
Something most English speakers have internalised, but can’t necessarily explain (including me, mostly) is the difference between a subject and an object in a sentence. In a nutshell, a sentence’s subject is the person or thing doing something, and the object is having something done to it.
‘Whom’ should be used as the object of a sentence and ‘who’ as the subject. “To whom does this beer belong?” – in this sentence,’whom’ is the object – belongingness is happening to it. The beer is the subject because it’s doing the belonging. (Belongingness is totally a word.)
“Who brought this beer?” – this time, ‘who’ is the subject and ‘beer’ the object. The ‘who’ has brought the ‘beer’.
A quick way to double check yourself is to remember that who/whom are a pair like I/me and he/him. See all the ‘M’s? They’re the personal pronouns to be used as objects. The non-M words are the subjects. It means you can rewrite your sentence using another of these personal pronoun – if an M word sounds right, use ‘whom’. So “whom/who does this beer belong to?” becomes ‘this beer belongs to him”. ‘Him’ is an ‘M’ pronoun, so ‘whom’ is correct.
Remember though, that our stupid language means correctness doesn’t necessarily equal writing awesomeness. More often than not, you’re probably better off compromising your commitment to correctness in the interests of readability. But then, whom am I kidding?