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All right, it’s time for the second grammar review section; last week’s looked at contractions and their homophones, and today I’ll look at who and whom.

The simplest advice I can give about using whom is not to. Contemporary English doesn’t require whom in any situation other than exceedingly formal writing. Just use who all the time.

Before you think that I’m just some lazy linguistic anarchist for suggesting this, let me point out that I am only agreeing with John McIntyre, former president of the American Copy Editors Society and an editor at the Baltimore Sun, who writes:

“There is a problem that even educated writers have with figuring out whether a subordinate clause should begin with who or whom. If you have that difficulty, you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who.”

But perhaps you have a reason to use whom, whether because you need to write very formally, or because you have a stodgy teacher/superior who insists upon its use, or because you’re just good old-fashioned curious about the niceties of English grammar. In that case, here’s my advice on how it’s used.

In short, who and whom are the same word with different case markings. Who is in the nominative (or subjective) case, and whom is in the accusative (or objective) case. That’s the only difference — not that one is more formal than the other or anything like that.*

So knowing how to use whom is simply a matter of knowing when each case should be marked. Unfortunately, English rarely marks case, so it’s not something that we, as native English speakers, are used to thinking about. In fact, aside from who(m), the only other sort of case marking in English is on personal pronouns, and even then only on a few of them.** I and me, for instance, are nominative and accusative versions of each other, as are he and him, she and her, we and us, and they and them.

The first guideline, then, is to use whom wherever it replaces an accusative pronoun (me, him, her, us, them). So:

(1a) Who saw you? (She saw me.)
(1b) Whom did you see? (I saw her.)
(1c) Whom did you give the gift to? (I gave it to her.)

Your intuitions with personal pronouns’ cases are probably pretty accurate, so when you can rephrase the sentence, you’ll do well. The trouble is that you can’t always easily replace who(m) with a personal pronoun. For instance:

(2a) The fellow who(m) I saw at the bus stop
(2b) I don’t care who(m) did it.
(2c) Who(m)ever the werewolf stalks is in trouble.

Since there’s no question to answer here, you need to get a bit cleverer and look at the syntactic structure of the sentence. In these examples, who(m) is filling for a missing noun phrase somewhere in the sentence; linguists refer to the missing noun phrase as a “gap”, and who(m) as its “filler”. Even though the filler is usually in a different position from the gap, structurally the filler and gap are linked. Whatever case would be assigned to the gap manifests itself on the filler.

When the gap is an object, whom is appropriate. (2a) can use whom, because it’s filling a gap in the object of the verb saw.

When the gap is a subject, whom is inappropriate. (2b) can’t use whom, because the gap is the subject of the verb did.

(2c) gets tricky, because we seem to have two conflicting case assignments. Who(m)ever is the object of stalks, so you’d expect accusative case, but it also looks like the subject of is, so what do we do? In general, only the closest case assignment matters, and case doesn’t trickle down within a phrase. Since the subject of is is actually the whole phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks, not just who(m)ever, its case assignment doesn’t manifest. Only the assignment within the smaller phrase who(m)ever the werewolf stalks matters, and that’s accusative case from stalks. Thus whomever is appropriate here.

This is a bit subtle, and I don’t think I’ve done a great job of explaining it. (A newspaper columnist and I got into a fight about such a case assignment three years ago, and we still haven’t settled it.) This is the sort of situation where you’re probably best to just go with who; even if you have spent the time to prove to yourself that whom is correct, there’s a pretty good chance that someone else will insist that you’re hypercorrecting.

Summary: In contemporary American English, whom is necessary only in certain situations within very formal writing, so you can get by just fine without using it. If you choose to use it, remember that it is not the formal variant of who but rather the accusative-case variant of who. If who is replacing a subject of a sentence, it should never be whom. Whom is reserved for objects of verbs and objects of prepositions.

The Back-to-School Reviews so far:
I: Confusing contractions (your, you’re and the lot) [09/04/12]
II: Who and whom [09/10/12]


*: Whom seems more formal because it’s mostly used in formal writing. In informal writing, who is the form for both nominative and accusative cases.

**: Technically speaking, the apostrophe-s on possessives is a way of marking genitive case, but that’s a topic for another time.

Sometimes I worry that I’m not properly using this blog as a chance to get the word out about linguistics, so to rest my troubled mind, let’s talk a little about a component of syntactic theory: case. (Please stop clicking on the nearest link in an attempt to escape.) If you’ve never heard of case, here’s a quick overview. Syntactic theory dictates that all noun phrases must be assigned a case in order to be grammatical. This requirement is called the Case Filter. The Case Filter explains why (1a) is grammatical but (1b) is not; an inflected verb like ate can supply case to its subject (the man), but the uninflected infinitive to eat can’t supply case to its subject.  As a result, the man is not assigned case in (1b), breaking the Case Filter and resulting in an ill-formed sentence.  We can remedy this situation, as in (1c), where told supplies case for the man, satisfying the Case Filter and fixing the sentence.

(1a) The man ate seven sour cream donuts.
(1b) *The man to eat seven sour cream donuts.
(1c) I told the man to eat seven sour cream donuts.

In an attempt to build suspense, I’ve so far avoided saying what exactly this “case” thing is that’s being assigned. Roughly, case is a marker on a noun phrase (NP) that indicates what the NP’s role is in the sentence. English only has three morphological cases: the nominative (or subjective), accusative (or objective), and genitive (or possessive) cases. I’m going to overlook possessive case in this post, because it’s not relevant to the final point and is rather different from the other two cases. Nominative case is used to mark a subject, while accusative marks an object. These two cases are only apparent in pronouns. The nominative forms of the personal pronouns are I, you, he, she, it, we, they, while the accusative forms are me, you, him, her, it, us, them. (2a) is correct because the subject is in the nominative case and the object is in the accusative. (2b) is incorrect because the cases are swapped.

(2a) I saw him.
(2b) *Me saw he.

(2c) The octopus ate the cuttlefish.
(2d) The cuttlefish ate the octopus.

Note that (2c) & (2d) are both correct because non-pronominal NPs are “zero-marked” in English. That means that they don’t exhibit any outward marking of their cases; a nominative non-pronominal NP looks the same as the accusative non-pronominal NP. Zero-marking appears in some other places in English: the plural of sheep is sheep, and the conjugated verb eat in I eat fish is indistinguishable from the uninflected infinitival form in I want to eat fish.

Because only the pronouns have apparent case markings, English is often said to have an “impoverished” case system. Compared to a Finno-Ugric language like Estonian or Hungarian, which has tons of cases with exotic names like the inessive, superessive, ablative, translative, and exessive, English seems as poor as a pauper on payday. And what’s worse is that English has been steadily reducing its case markings. Back in Old English, not only were all nouns marked for nominative and accusative cases, but also dative and instrumental cases.

Why has English shed so much of its case system? Well, quite simply, it got outsourced. Prepositional phrases took over the roles of morphological case marking for most of the oblique cases, like dative and instrumental. That’s why we now say that Vikings lived by the sword instead of lifde sweorde — the instrumental changed from an -e suffix on the noun to the prepositions with and by. The English equivalents of those exotic Finno-Ugric cases are mostly recreated through humble prepositions. As for the structural cases (nominative and accusative), the modern (relatively) fixed word order has rendered them obsolete. Outside of poetic writing and certain syntactic alternations like topicalization, the word order of Modern English is Subject-Verb-Object. As a result, the structural cases are redundant and their markings have just fallen out of the language.

But not entirely! Pronouns have zealously retained their case markings through hell and high water. Except, of course, for whom, which has been losing its grip on that accusative -m for some time. And this, at long last, brings us to the whole point of this post.  Reading through a column about hypercorrection by Paul Mulshine, I was struck by one supposed example of hypercorrection, the use of whomever for whoever:

(3) Whomever the Republicans nominate should assume he must replace Iowa’s seven electoral votes …

(3) comes from the pen of George Will, who Mulshine claims has engaged in a spot of hypercorrection; according to Mulshine, whomever ought to be whoever. Mulshine asserts that “‘Whomever’ may sound more impressive to the unlettered, but it cannot serve as the subject of a sentence.” But whomever isn’t the subject of (3). The subject is the whole phrase whomever the Republicans nominate. And this is where case assignment gets really tricky, because we start to get a conflict.

Obviously, subjects get assigned nominative case; that’s why I love you is sweet and Me love you is stupid. But the subject in this sentence is actually a whole clause — a “sentential subject”, as it’s known in the biz. Semantically, who(m)ever is the head of the sentential subject, so you might well expect the nominative case to manifest itself on who(m)ever, yielding an m-less whoever. I imagine this is Mulshine’s train of thought here.  But within the sentential subject, who(m)ever is the object!  It has moved from the object position to the front of the clause, but if the embedded question were answered, we’d have “The Republicans nominate McCain”, with McCain, the object, replacing who(m)ever.*   Therefore, who(m)ever ought to get accusative case, yielding whomever. And so it seems that who(m)ever in (3) needs a Schrodinger’s m, an m that simultaneously exists to satisfy the accusative case and does not exist to satisfy the nominative case.

This dilemma ends up being resolved by arguing that the nominative case on the sentential subject doesn’t ever have to visibly manifest itself on an NP; it is an abstract case assigned to the whole sentential subject. That means that the nominative case never gets assigned to who(m)ever, and the problem clears right up, with George Will being technically correct to write whomever. But note that it took substantial analysis to realize that — certainly more than us case-deprived English speakers are prepared to do in fluent speech. Furthermore, note that this is such a weird situation that even native English speakers such as Mulshine will make mistakes on it. But more than anything else, note that it doesn’t matter. There is no ambiguity in the meaning of the sentence, no effect of omitting or including the m. That’s why case is falling out of the language; it just doesn’t do anything for us, and it can get really difficult to apply accurately. In my own speech and writing, I have an alternation between who and whom for the accusative case. I use whom in situations where it pleases my ears and I am confident in the accusative case assignment, and everywhere else I go with who. There are probably a lot of children who are being taught that who is the standard accusative form. I say good for them, and good for the language. It’s moving on.

*: If you’re having trouble with this part of the argument, think of the sentential subject as a question on its own: Whom did the Republicans nominate? Clearly in this question the Republicans is the subject and Whom is the object.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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