Centre for Applied Linguistics & Language Education

Who/Whom (one of many)

Although I’ve yet to post about one of the most requested points of clarification in the English grammar world — that of who vs whom, I’m sure this short post will be only the first of many.

My first instinct with who/whom queries is to quickly explain that this interrogative personal pronoun along with the standard personal pronouns are the only remaining forms in English declined for case. At one time, every word in English existed in multiple forms, declined for case, gender, number.   Over the centuries though, case markings have fallen out of use and been replaced instead with a set of rigid word orders accomplishing the same functions with only the genitive case maintaining its marked possessive ‘s form.

The lone exceptions are the marked forms of I, you, he, she, it, we, and they (nominative) which decline to me, you, him, her, it, us, and them in the accusative and dative cases and my, your, his, her, its, our, and their in the genitive.

Students learn these forms without ever connecting them with case, yet they tend to trip over nominative who and accusative/dative whom. Many instructors find themselves unsure about how to use and explain who versus whom as well, and rarely think to connect them to genitive whose.

As I said, normally, I run down case, compare the personal pronouns and then encourage the learner to apply the same logic to who/whom/whose. Language learners are and long have been my laboratory rats so to speak, and today the lab has presented me with a quandary that I have thus far been unable to crack:

When who is used in a subordinate description or clause referring to a noun which is in the accusative/dative, should who also be in the same case? My instinct says yes, but a review of literature seems to say no…


“John is a man who you can always trust.”

— predicate nominative construction in which John and man are both in the nominative case with who (describing ‘man’) is also in the nominative.

“John gave the book to the man whom was sitting on the bench.”


“John gave the book to the man who was sitting on the bench.”

This is a standard transitive verb construction in which John is nominative, book is accusative, and man is dative. As in the previous sentence, who further describes the man, but should dative man require dative whom? Linguistic reasoning and Syntactic Hierarchy (a primary governing force of English) would say yes. But, as you may find in reading the initial sentence of the pair, whom doesn’t quite sound right. My brain and my linguistic intuition tells me it is correct, but that little computer chip in my brain that regulates natural language flow seems to be buzzing ‘no’. Reading through a few novels and scanning google backs up my trepidation.

So at first glance, it could be surmised that who remains in the nominative regardless of the case of its antecedent. This however is false. Just as examples of declined accusative/dative whom in this usage are hard to come by, examples of non-declined genitive who (in lieu of whose), compare:

“John saw the man whose dog bit my leg.”


* “John saw the man who dog bit my leg.”

This is not quite an identical situation, as man is not in the genitive, rather who refers to dog, but the fact that nominative who in this case is universally ungrammatical shows that a pattern of case matching does exist.

So, I ask you all, if whose is normal, why do we shun whom in similar situations?


UPDATE:  In attempting to find more information on this, I’ve managed to dig an old grammar guide out a box in family plantation’s hayloft.  The following is from Warner’s English Grammar and Composition (HBJ Co. 1977):

Who and Whom as Relative Pronouns

When who and whom (whoever and whomever) are used to begin a subordinate clause, that are relative pronouns.  Their case is governed by the same rules that govern the case of a personal pronoun.

The case of the pronoun beginning a subordinate clause is determined by its use in the clause that it begins.  The case is not affected by any word outside the clause.

In order to analyze a who-whom problem, follow these steps:

  1. Pick out the subordinate clause.
  2. Determine hoe the pronoun is used in the clause – subject, predicate nominative, object of verb, object of preposition – and decide its case according to the rules.
  3. Select the correct form of the pronoun.

Problem:             The new teacher, (who, whom) has taken Mr. Green’s position, came from the South.

Step 1:                  The subordinate clause is (who, whom) has taken Mr. Green’s position.

Step 2:                  In this clause the pronoun is used as the subject of the verb has taken; as a subject it should be, according to rule, in the nominative case.

Step 3:                  The nominative form is who.

Solution:              The new teacher, who has taken Mr. Green’s position is from the South.

Problem:             The new teacher, (who, whom) I met today, came from the South.

Step 1:                  The subordinate clause is (who, whom) I met today, came from the South.

Step 2:                  In the clause the subject is I; the verb is met; and the pronoun is the object of the verb met (I met whom).  As an object it is in the accusative case according to rule.

Step 3:                  The objective form is whom.

Solution:              The new teacher, whom I met today, came from the South.

Problem:             Does anyone know (who, whom) the new teacher is?

Step 1:                  The subordinate clause is (who, whom) the new teacher is.

Step 2:                  In the clause, teacher is the subject; is is the verb; the pronoun is a predicate nominative (the new teacher is who).  As a predicate nominative it is in the nominative case according to rule.

Step 3:                  The nominative form is who.

Solution:              Does anyone know who the new teacher is?

In writing the preceding sentence, one might tend to use whom, thinking it the object of the verb know, but know is outside the clause and cannot affect the case of a word in the clause.  The object of the verb know is the entire clause who the new teacher is.

Granted, this is merely a usage text.  It provides no linguistic reasoning for these rules, and instead provides guidance based on the traditions of usage at the time.  While I’m not apt to disagree with the author’s analysis of correct usage, I do find fault with the thinking that clauses behave in a sence independent of the antecedents which subordinate them.  In every other attribute of English that I can think of, Syntactic Hierarchy operates in a fully left-to-right manner in exactly the same way as an algebraic equation with syntactic components subordinating (or modifying) everything to their syntactic right.


January 1, 2010 - Posted by | English Linguistics | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The writer’s argument is quite logical for whom ,but he should note that English is a living language.

    Comment by Babatunde Y | January 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hi Babatunde. Thanks for taking the time to read this posting.

    I hear the comment all the time that English is a living language, or a changing language. It’s often the primary argument against prescriptive grammar. Certainly language does change, and over time this can actually result in the very grammar of the language taking drastic shifts (see my post on aspect and my post on futurity for examples). However, I don’t think we should allow the idea that our language is flexible to be an excuse for dismissing errors in usage.

    Some attributes of traditional usage have been just that, tradition. The various rantings of Samuel Johnson include such things as prohibitions on prepositions at the end of sentences and the split infinitive. These have no linguistic premise, but were simply his opinion. For centuries they were taught as gospel, only to be ignored by everyday speakers. Today they are rarely taught, having been recognized as the inane ideas they are.

    Most prescriptive forms however, have strong justifications in which, under proper use, their employment results in much more efficient and effective communication.

    What I’m trying to say is that, if speakers fully understood the reasoning behind prescriptive forms, they would be more prone to use them. This post draws attention not to an abandoned usage or one that has become outdated by language change, but rather to one that we simply don’t seem to fully understand.

    Comment by Drew Ward | January 1, 2010 | Reply

  3. Found another instance of case matching today:

    “Austrian officials are struggling to find a final resting place for a dead German man [b]whom[/b] no one wants.”


    Comment by Drew Ward | January 13, 2010 | Reply

  4. I am a foreigner, and no one, so far, could explain to me how to use who/whom in a case of a clause being a predicate nominative. Example: It is not what you know, but who/whom you know. Does the same rule apply as for a subordinate clause (basically, find the role of a pronoun inside the clause – that is your correct form). Naturally, based on my language (Ukrainian), I would say WHOM. Reasoning: It is not what you know, but who/whom you know => who/whom you know => S-you, V-know, DO-whom => It is not what you know, but whom you know. Or is it a totally different rule and it is WHO after all? Mainly because of the fact that the clause is nominative predicate?

    Comment by Nata | November 29, 2013 | Reply

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