The Negative Canon: ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

Relative clauses modify noun phrases. They can be introduced by the relative pronouns who, whom, which, whose and by the subordinator that. In some cases, the introductory word may be omitted altogether.

The relative pronoun used as the subject of a relative clause and referring to a person is who, as in:

(1) That’s the journalist who interviewed me last week. (This is a defining relative clause, and in such cases that may be used instead of who.)

When the relative pronoun is the object of the relative clause, defenders of the negative canon will insist that it should be whom, so they would have us write, or even say:

(2) That’s the journalist whom I met last week.

Similarly, they claim that whom is also required after a preposition, so it has to be:

(3) That’s the journalist to whom I gave an interview last week.

In ‘Mind the Gaffe’ (2001) R L Trask writes that ‘the word whom is all but dead in English, even in formal English’, but the OED might be more accurate in saying that it is ‘no longer current in natural colloquial speech’. Both seem closer to the truth than Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ (2000), where he gives the examples:

There’s a new couple down the road who I’d love to meet.
There’s a man at work who I fantasize about.
You need to know who to contact.

‘In each of these three sentences,’ he writes, ‘who should be whom, for in each case the pronoun is the object of a verb: whom I’d love to meet; whom I fantasize about; whom to contact. Who is appropriate only where the pronoun is the subject of the verb.’

That’s as bad as Nevile Gwynne, who wants us to say Do you see whom I see? 

This approach ignores how people actually use the language. In the case of (1), the relative pronoun would probably be omitted in most contexts altogether to produce:

(4) That’s the journalist I met last week.

and (3) would occur most naturally as:  

(5) That’s the journalist I gave an interview to last week.

Only in the most formal contexts would (2) and (3) be required.

Whom still has, for the time being, a place in formal contexts (and for the difference between formal and informal contexts, and the kind of language appropriate to each, see Geoffrey Pullum’s article in Lingua Franca). As Trask concedes:

‘there is just one circumstance in which whom is usual in formal writing, and that is as the object of a preposition which immediately precedes it.’

Similar considerations arise in the case of interrogative pronouns.

(6) Whom do you mean?

is laughable. The normal form of the question is:

(7) Who do you mean?

There is a particular case in which the choice between who and whom, for those who insist on using the latter at all, is not obvious. That’s where the relative pronoun seems to hover between being subject and object, as in the sentence:

(8a) That journalist, who(m) some people think is arrogant, was really rather nice.

The sentence brings together two clauses. One occurs as the main clause:

(8b) That journalist was really rather nice.

If the relative clause is seen as a transformation of:

(8c) Some people think him arrogant

then whom is required.

If it’s seen as a transformation of:

(8d) Some people think he is arrogant

then who is required, because when it occurs in (6a) some people think can be considered as being in parenthesis.

Geoffrey Pullum considers the matter here, and concludes that both who and whom are possible.

I’d use who myself simply on the grounds that the less we use whom the sooner we will get rid of it. Its decreasing use is no more than a continuation of the erosion of inflections that began hundreds of years ago. Those who would mourn its loss should bear in mind that it has its origin in Old English hwæm, the dative, singular and plural, of hwa, which meant who? and anyone or someone (and wasn’t actually used as a relative pronoun at all in Old English). So on etymological grounds it might be justifiable to use whom after a preposition. But the accusative singular, masculine and feminine, of hwa was hwone, so perhaps, in the interest of preserving what the negative canon warriors see as the purity of the language, they should think of saying and writing:

(9) That’s the journalist whon I met last week.

A final thought:

The word ‘whom’ was invented to make us all sound like butlers.


Filed under Language

8 responses to “The Negative Canon: ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’

  1. I agree with almost everything you say, especially about the fact that in defining relative clauses the natural thing to do is omit the relative pronoun altogether – I can’t remember anyone singing about “The man whom I love”! But sadly there are still some (including some who should know better) who consider the title of Bo Diddley’s “Who do you love” to be ungrammatical.

    In TEFL we do teach, however, that whom is necessary after a preposition, but stress that native speakers usually try and avoid this by preposition stranding, except in very formal writing.

    There is one situation, however, where this is not possible, which is in non-defining relative clauses (which are usually only found in written language) of the type:

    “There were thirty students, many of whom were from overseas.”

    Although a serial ‘whom’ avoider myself, I don’t think ‘who’ would sound very natural in this context, and agree with the general TEFL way of thinking . Other similar expressions include ‘all of whom’, ‘half of whom’, ‘a large number of whom’ etc.


  2. I don’t know if I’m allowed to blow my own trumpet here, but Ive blogged about this myself (for foreign learners) under the titleWhen do we use whom instead of who? – my initial answer was “I’m tempted to say almost never, but I’ll try to be a bit more objective.”, but then go into quite some detail of the uses of who and whom.

    I also started a rubric called “Whom Watch” to keep an eye on those people (like the Apostrophe Protection Society, who tell us that we must use ‘whom’.


  3. This morning I had a student who asked me about whom. She is Polish and thus perhaps more sensitive to inflections that Spanish students. I told her that, basically, she could forget it except in certain limited cases. She was not happy with this advice. She told me that she had a book about English grammar, given to her by her Scottish partner’s mother, which had a piece about using whom, saying clearly that… She couldn’t remember the name of the book but thought it was something to do with I and me. I have sent her Will’s post in the hope that it might help her. She is very keen on rules and, unlike many people who are, she is able to learn, handle and apply them.

    Some comments to Will if I may, while seconding Barrie’s congratulations on the article.

    The Language Log has dealt with Churchill’s supposed authorship of the comment about stranded prepositions.

    Between you and I is not necessarily hypercorrection, as I have explained.

    The reason for sending (or not) to know for whom the bell tolls refers to the times when, on a death in the village, the church bell was rung and people from surrounding villages would send someone to find who had died. There was a custom of ringing it once for each year of the person’s life, which would give some indication of who it was even if travel to the village was impossible, in winter for example.


    • I’m covering ‘between you and I’ in my next post, which will appear shortly.


    • Most of my Polish students use ‘whom’ with prepositions – ‘to whom shall I give this’, although not I think for when who is the simple object – ‘Who(m) shall I ask?’. I think it’s for two reasons: quite traditional teaching at school (virtually all Poles learn English at school these days), and the fact that, as you say, it fits their own case system better. I tell them it makes them sound rather formal and encourage them to use ‘who’, but it’s often quite ingrained.

      They also much prefer ‘which’ to ‘that’ in defining relative clauses, as they also have the same corresponding word for relative and demonstrative ‘which’, as we do. On the other hand, I’ve heard that the French prefer ‘that’ for similar reasons, ‘qui/que’ being their relative pronoun, and ‘que’ being used as a conjunction, like ‘that’. I wonder if anything similar happens in Spanish, where ‘que’ is both relative pronoun and the conjunction for ‘that’.

      Other points noted, although Ben Zimmer hasn’t actually proved that Gowers was wrong. Just because he can’t find something in print on the Internet, doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. Even if it’s apocryphal, it’s a nice story, and the humour of the story is perhaps more important than its provenance. However I will alter it to reflect Gower’s comment – ‘It is said that Churchill ….’. And I’ll change ‘Between you and I’ to being a ‘possible example’ of hypercorrection, or something similar.


  4. Pingback: The Negative Canon: [Noun Phrase] and ‘I’/‘Me’ | Caxton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s