November 09, 2004

Talking about whom you are and who you're seeking

James E. McGreevey said farewell yesterday, as he stepped down from the governorship of New Jersey. I haven't been able to find an audio version of his speech, but the published text includes some striking images. My favorite: "We smile in person and then throw each other under the bus when we leave the room". This is a case where a diagram might be helpful, as Geoff Pullum has suggested for Dan Brown's descriptions.

The speech also featured a grammatical innovation (emphasis added):

To be clear, I am not apologizing for being a gay American, but rather, for having let personal feelings impact my decision-making and for not having had the courage to be open about whom I was.

Here whom is being treated like the object of about. A web search shows that others feel the same way --

Or checking into the hotel that night and not having to say a word about whom I was or what I was doing - they knew already.
I thought a moment of every teaching I could think of about whom I was and then responded. "Some say I am Spirit or Soul. Is that who I am?".
I'll tell them about whom I was, what I wanted to be, and maybe even about the wife, mother, and woman I still hope to become.

though it is still a minority view:

"about __ I am and"
"about __ he|she is and"
"about __ we|you|they are and"

I'm glad I checked, since I happened on a review of Yahoo Personals, at, containing this lovely sentence

In your ad, you can talk about whom you are and who you're seeking.

which suggests that the active principle is stringwise adjacency to the preposition. The standard view would be that the whom and who in this sentence should be swapped, but it seems that as this bit of dead morphology rots, new hypotheses about its function germinate.

Though perhaps if we could search enough 18th century writing, as produced by the equivalents of Gov. McGreevey and, we might find find examples of the same sort of thing, I don't know.

[Update: there's a video stream for McGreevey's farewell at CSPAN.]

[Update #2: Matt Weiner blogged about this, citing examples like "I lost the person whom I was and the more time goes by, the more I believe that the person I was is lost to me forever now".

Matt is absolutely right that some people use whom without any plausible grammatical pretext at all. That's the premise of James Thurber's joke ("'Whom' should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired"), and the conclusion of Geoff Pullum's illustrated obituary. My point in reference to Gov. McGreevey's use was just that adjacency to a preposition seems to make the insertion of whom somewhat more likely, presumably because in many cases, the wh-word would really be the object of the preposition. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 9, 2004 07:02 AM