That, who or whom?

This week we’ll be talking about pronoun confusion; specifically between “that,” “who” and “whom.”

Here’s a sample sentence to start us off: “The pirate that sunk my ship sailed off with my booty.”

See the problem?

While “that,” “who” and “whom” are all pronouns, they are used in very different situations. “That” should be used as a replacement for nouns which are things: buildings, food, machinery, animals, furniture, etc. “Who” and “whom” are pronouns which refer to people.

Let’s fix the sentence above. Since we know that pirates are not things, but people – albeit not nice people – we’ll be using either “who” or “whom.” To decide which of those pronouns we need, we must figure out whether our pirate is the subject or the object of the sentence. “Who” is a subject pronoun, meaning it replaces a noun which is performing the action in a sentence. “Whom” is an object pronoun, meaning it is acted upon in a sentence. Before you let all that trip you up, just remember this simple question: “Who is doing what to whom?”

Pirates, being categorically dynamic individuals, are usually the ones doing something. This is the case with our pirate as well. So, to fix the incorrect “that” in the sentence above, we’ll replace it with “who:” “The pirate who sunk my ship sailed off with my booty.”

If you decide to take action, though, and go after the pirate, we’ll see that an object pronoun comes into play: “There’s the pirate whom I’m looking for!” We can make the sentence a little stilted to show the need for an object pronoun more obviously: “There’s the pirate for whom I am looking!”

Once you remember that “that” isn’t a replacement for people, and “who” always does something to “whom,” you should have no trouble with this pronoun issue. Be sure to keep an eye out for pirates, though (and don’t let anyone touch your booty).