When I was in college, I worked behind the front desk of a major hotel. Directly across the lobby was the hotel bar, a small, dark lounge with the bar counter on the opposite side and a stage at one end. George Thorogood, when he stayed at the hotel, would sit at the far end of the counter, next to the stage.
Connie, the bartender, once told me that her job was to keep people away from George, but I never once saw her have to do this. George Thorogood would nurse his drink in silence. That’s when I started listening to his music and became a fan.
My favorite song performed by George Thorogood is “Move It On Over,” and my second favorite is “Who Do You Love?” This order would be reversed except for one thing: bad grammar in the song title. To be grammatically correct, “Who Do You Love?” should be “Whom Do You Love?”
Many people are confused by “whom.” What does “whom” mean? When do you use “whom”? These are easy questions to answer if you know about objects and object pronouns.
An object in a sentence is either (1) the referent for a preposition or (2) the recipient of an action. Let’s look at these in order.
Referent for a preposition: Take any preposition (e.g., “to,” “for,” “under,” “beside,” “within”). Say the preposition and ask “what?” The answer will be the object of the preposition, the word to which the preposition refers, i.e., the referent. Let’s try a few.
- “Above the table.” Above what? The table. Thus, “table” is the object of the preposition “above.”
- “Around the corner.” Around what? The corner. Thus, “corner” is the object of the preposition.
- “Below the belt.” Below what? The belt. Thus, “belt” is the object of the preposition.
- “Next to the ugly dog.” Next to what? The ugly dog. Thus, “ugly dog” is the object of the preposition.
- “From Susan.” From what (or whom)? Susan. Thus, “Susan” is the object of the preposition.
Recipient of an action: Many actions are performed on something else. We call these verbs “transitive verbs” (e.g., “read,” “drive,” “eat,” “deliver”). Say the verb and then ask “what?” The answer will be the direct object of the verb. This direct object will be the recipient of the action, the thing being acted on. Let’s try a few.
- “Bake the cake.” Bake what? The cake. Thus, “cake” is the direct object of “bake.”
- “Sing a song.” Sing what? A song. Thus, “song” is the direct object of “sing.”
- “Eat a pizza.” Eat what? A pizza. Thus, “pizza is the direct object of “eat.”
- “Put on smelly clothes.” Put on what? Smelly clothes. Thus, “smelly clothes” is the direct object of “put on.”
- “Forget John.” Forget what (or whom)? John. Thus, “John” is the direct object of “forget.”
Now that we can find the objects in sentences, we can replace those objects with pronouns. To do this correctly, we need to use object pronouns. Object pronouns are the only pronouns that can be used as objects in sentences, which is why they are called object pronouns.
Object pronouns: “me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “it,” “whom,” “us,” “them.” Let’s try a few of these, using the samples above.
- “Above the table.” Replace “table” with “it” to get “Above it.”
- “From Susan.” Replace “Susan” with “her” to get “From her.”
- “Put on smelly clothes.” Replace “smelly clothes” with “them” to get “Put on them” (or, more commonly, “Put them on.”)
- “Forget John.” Replace “John” with “him” to get “Forget him.”
Whom Do You Love?
With an understanding of objects and the list of object pronouns, we can, finally, understand why “Who Do You Love?” should be “Whom do you love?” Let’s see what “Who” is doing in this sentence.
The verb here is “love,” or, more completely, “do love.” This is an action being done to something else. It is being used as a transitive verb, so it needs an object. In short, the action of loving is being done to “who,” and that’s the grammatical problem. “Who” is not an object pronoun!
Look at that list of object pronouns again. We don’t find “who.” Instead, we see that “whom” is the object pronoun. This song title needs an object pronoun, so it needs the word “whom.” To be grammatically correct, this song title should be written “Whom Do You Love?”
The Easy Way
I have an easy strategy for figuring out when to use “whom” instead of “who.” The pronoun “who” can only be used as the subject of the verb. For example, in “Who wants more cake?” “who” is the subject of the verb “wants.” If the pronoun isn’t being used as the subject of a verb, you can’t use “who.” Use “whom.”
Subject = “who”
Non-subject = “whom”
Yes, using “whom” sounds funny in this song title, but it is correct. I’ll give Thorogood a pass on this error, though. If, as the lyrics say, he has a cobra necktie and a chimney made from a human skull, using perfectly grammatical language may be, well, out of character. And it’s still a really great song.