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word whom is all but dead in English, even in formal English’, but the OED might be more accurate in saying that it is ‘no longer current in natural colloquial speech’.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.