Who (pronoun): Wikis

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The pronoun who, in the English language, is the interrogative and relative pronoun that is used to refer to human beings.

The corresponding interrogative pronouns for non-sentient beings are what and which, and the relative pronouns are that and which. That and which are sometimes used in contexts where who might be a more suitable choice, and who is likewise used in contexts where that or which would be a more suitable choice. In addition, the possessive version of the non-sentient pronouns is the same as that of who: whose takes this role for all of them. E.g., "I will have to fix the car whose engine I ruined".

English grammar series
English grammar

In etymology, the spelling represents the expected outcome of Old English hwâ, while the actual pronunciation represents a divergent outcome. It is cognate with Latin quis and Greek ποιός.

Contents

Case forms

Traditionally, who is the subjective (nominative) form only. According to traditional prescriptive grammar, who is a subjective pronoun (subject of the side clause), and whom is the corresponding objective and dative pronoun (an object of the side clause). Whose is the possessive form, which is sometimes confused with who's, a contraction of who is or who has. See also: English declension.

  • He is someone who is a great guy. ("Who" is subject of the subordinate clause)
  • He is someone whom I owe a great deal. ("I" is subject; "whom" is the object referring to the sentence subject he)
  • He is someone whom I admire. ("I" is subject; "whom" is the object referring to the sentence subject he)
  • He is someone whose help I appreciate. ("Whose" is adjunct to help which is possessed by the sentence subject he)

The form who is replacing whom in objective case contexts. As early as the 1970s, the whowhom distinction was identified as having "slipped so badly that [it is] almost totally uninformative" (Wanner & Maratsos 1978). According to the OED (2nd edition, 1989), whom is "no longer current in natural colloquial speech". Lasnik & Sobin 2000 argue that surviving occurrences of whom are not part of ordinary English grammar, but the result of extra-grammatical rules for producing "prestige" forms.

Whom remains in significant use following a preposition (see examples immediately below). In informal contexts, the preposition may instead be placed at the end (see preposition stranding), and the word who may be omitted where it is used as a relative pronoun. For example:

  • (Relative, formal): He is someone to whom I owe a great deal.
  • (Interrogative, formal): To whom did you give it?
  • (Relative, informal): He is someone (who) I owe a great deal to.
  • (Interrogative, informal): Who did you give it to?

Rules for determining who vs. whom in traditional usage

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Use with prepositions

Whom is the form used when it is the object of a preposition. Again, this is analogous to personal pronouns, for which the objective form is also used after a preposition. For example:

  • To whom have you been talking? (Compare: You have been talking to him.)
  • For whom have you taken these marvelous photographs? (You have taken these marvelous photographs for him.)
  • With whom are you going to the cinema? (You are going to the cinema with him.)
  • He sent gifts to his granddaughter, of whom he was fond. (He sent gifts to his granddaughter; he was fond of her.)

Forms with who in which the preposition does not immediately precede the pronoun are commonly judged acceptable in everyday use, and in spoken use especially:

  • He sent gifts to his granddaughter, who he was fond of.

However, this form often violates the (separately controversial) rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, so the traditional objective form may be preferable, even in speech.

Indirect object with or without to

The indirect object is normally formed with to, so is generally just a particular example of the usage with prepositions (to whom). In some situations, whom can also be used by itself to represent the indirect object. However, this is only really used in contexts where the direct object is omitted:

  • Whom will you tell?

In fact, the following is normally considered acceptable in everyday use, especially in speech:

  • Who will you tell?

Where the direct object is expressed, to is generally included, even where an analogous sentence using a personal pronoun might use the pronoun as the indirect object:

  • You will tell him a story.

But:

  • To whom will you tell a story?

When the to does not immediately precede the pronoun, either who or whom is generally considered acceptable:

  • Whom will you tell a story to? [Rather formal.]
  • Who will you tell a story to? [Less formal, and more common in fact.]

Who(m)(so)ever

According to traditional grammar and guides to usage, the relative pronouns who(m)ever and who(m)(so)ever take the case appropriate to their internal clause:

  • Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods. (Albert Einstein)

Whoever is in the nominative because it is the subject of undertakes in the noun clause whoever undertakes...

Similarly:

  • Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.

Whoever is in the nominative because it is the subject of is in the relative clause whoever is without sin (compare: he [or she] is without sin).

In this case, whomever is used:

  • Whomever you meet there is bound to be interesting.

The accusative form whomever is right, because it is the object of meet within the internal clause Whomever you meet there (compare: you meet her [or him]), while the whole phrase whomever you meet there (rather than simply whomever) is the subject of is in the whole sentence.

Usage is variable, however: whomever is often employed and defended where the rules given above would require whoever, just as whom is often used as the subject of a verb in more complex situations (see next section).

Subject whom

A special problem arises in constructions like this:

  • Beethoven, who you say was a great composer, wrote only one opera. (Compare: "You say he [never him] was a great composer.")

The form given with who is safe, and even beyond reproach (since who is the subject of was). Nevertheless, many use and defend “whom” in such a sentence. The use of whom may arise from confusion with a form like this, in which whom is used according to the standard rules:

  • Beethoven, whom you believe a great composer, wrote only one opera.

It may be unclear whether the clause whom you believe a great composer should follow the rules for you believe him to be a great composer (taking objective case) or you believe that he is a great composer (taking the subjective).

Here is an example from The Age newspaper (Melbourne, Australia), which in April 1999 syndicated an article from the Washington Post concerning the Columbine massacre:

  • But if others were involved, it was Harris and Klebold whom students said seemed the tightest, who stood apart from the rest of their clique.

The Washington Post's original article "correctly" had who students said, but The Age altered this as a matter of house style to whom students said. (The continuation with the parallel construction who stood apart illustrates how The Age style can lead to inconsistencies.)

Even the King James Bible has the problematic whom as a subject at least six times, and has been much censured for it:

  • He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? (Matthew 16:15; cf. Matthew 16:13, Mark 8:27,29, Luke 9:18,20)

(Technically, ye is the subject associated with the verb say in But whom say ye that I am? and I is the subject associated with the verb am. Who[m] is a subject complement, as it would be in Who am I? or I am who? It is not an object complement.)

There are similar examples in Shakespeare:

  • Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drown'd, [...] (The Tempest, III, 3)
  • [...] going to seek the grave / Of Arthur, whom they say is kill'd to-night / On your suggestion. (King John, IV, 2)

Daniel Defoe also uses subject whom, here apparently affected by the proximity of him:

  • They told me that when they were so knocked down, the rest of their company rescued them, and stood over them fighting till they were come to themselves, all but him whom they thought had been dead;[...] (The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Chapter 6, Part 1)

In this case, who[m] is the subject of had been dead.

The OED traces subject whom back to the 15th century, while Jespersen (1965 [1924], appendix) cites even earlier examples from Chaucer.

Avoid the problem

William Safire, former speechwriter for U.S. President Richard Nixon and U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew and long-time language columnist for The New York Times Magazine, suggested the following:

  • The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence. This keeps a huge section of the hard disk of your mind available for baseball averages.

References

  • Jespersen, Otto (1965) [1924]. The Philosophy of Grammar. New York City: Norton.  
  • Lasnik, Howard; Nicholas Sobin (2000). "The who/whom puzzle: On the preservation of an archaic feature". Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 18: 343–371. doi:10.1023/A:1006322600501.  
  • William Safire, "On Language; Shnorring the Burden", The New York Times Magazine, October 7, 1990.
  • Wanner, Eric; Maratsos, Michael (1978). "An ATN approach to comprehension". in Halle, M; Bresnan, J; and Miller, G. A.. Linguistic theory and psychological reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.  

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