June 18, 2007


A while back I posted about two cases where the pronoun whom is often used for the subject of a clause (against the prescription that who should be used for subjects) and there's some structural motivation for choosing whom.  These I labeled ISOC (for "in-situ subject of an object clause") and ESOC (for "extracted subject of an object clause") -- hang on, I'll explain these -- which immediately suggested Shadrach and Meschach in the fiery furnace, although I have no good candidate for the Abednego character.

I suggested at the time that some people might have adopted ISOC or ESOC or both as part of a (non-standard) system for assigning case to the pronoun WHO.  Now I've collected some evidence in favor of this idea.

First ISOC, as in

(1) Extra copies will be provided for whomever needs them.

As I said in my earlier posting, here

we have an object clause (usually the object of a P) with WHO as its subject.  The pronoun then immediately follows the governor, and could easily be mistaken for its object (even though it's the whole clause that's the object).

So the pronoun picks up its case from its location, rather than from its syntactic function within its clause.

Sentence (1) is adapted from an example in a 1981 article by Maxine Hairston in College English (43.8.794-806): "Not all errors are created equal: Nonacademic readers in the professions respond to lapses in usage".  Hairston reported on a study in which she mailed 101 professionals (none of them English teachers) a questionnaire of 65 items, each including "one error in standard English usage", asking them to choose one of three responses for each item: "Does not bother me; Bothers me a little; Bothers me a lot."  She got 84 questionnaires back, and grouped the items into six levels according to the ratings on the returned questionnaires: "Outrageous, Very Serious, Serious, Moderately Serious, Minor, or Unimportant".

Notice that I said that the ISOC example (1) above was "adapted from" one of Hairston's -- the only item on the questionnaire testing case choice for WHO.  In fact, the item (Hairston's #1) on the questionnaire was not (1), but

(1') Extra copies will be provided for whoever needs them.

Wonderful.  Hairston was assuming that the ISOC version is the correct one; indeed, she says that the problem with (1') is "using 'whoever' in a sentence that called for 'whomever'" (p. 797).  Her respondents rated this sentence as only a Minor error -- quite possibly because they saw no error in it at all (even though they were told that each sentence contained one error in the "conventions of grammar"), or because they had a twinge about the passive, or thought extra (rather than additional) might be a tad colloquial, or whatever.  We'll never know: Hairston didn't have access to the respondents' reasons for their ratings, and we can't even ask her for her opinions, since she died two years ago.

But we do have access to Hairston's opinions about ISOC.  Twenty-five years ago, this highly respected professor of English at the University of Texas was in favor of it.  I very much doubt she was alone in this view.  So, ISOC lives.

On to ESOC.  As with ISOC, as I said in my earlier posting,

there's an object clause, but this time its subject has been extracted and now appears at the front of a higher clause.  Still, the gap of extraction immediately follows the governor (most often, a V)...

The gap can then be assigned accusative case (by position rather than syntactic function within its clause), and if this case is inherited by the extracted element, we get whom.  Here's Roy Blount, Jr. complaining about ESOC, also 25 years ago:

... the most prevalent who/whom mistake -- you see it even in the Times -- is the undue whom, as in, "The Pope listed all those whom he felt would rise from the dead."

In the notation from the earlier posting (with clause boundaries indicated by bracketing, with the extracted element bold-faced, and with the gap of extraction marked by underlining):

The Pope listed all those [ whom he felt [ ___ would rise from the dead ] ]

Blount is known primarily as a humorist, but much of what he writes can be fairly characterized as light essays, often on serious subjects.  His reflection on whom comes (on p. 85) from "Is the Pope capitalized?", a review of four style guides for journalists reprinted in his 1982 collection One Fell Soup: Or, I'm Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life (Penguin paperback).

It's not just the New York Times.  Reader Chris Lance, who finds ESOC jarring and tends to notice it, blogged in his journal about two examples in Colm Tóibín's The Master and five in Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost, all in relative clauses.  From The Master:

He sent his book on the matter to those in England [ whom he thought [ ___ might initiate a debate ] ]. (p. 79)

... people [ whom I don't think [ ___ ever knew Constance ] ] claim to miss her." (p. 197)

From Fingerpost (supplied to me by Lance in e-mail), in the U.K. Vintage paperback edition:

She had killed a man [ whom she said [ ___ had raped her ] ], but the jury judged this a lie because she had fallen pregnant, which cannot occur without the woman taking pleasure in the act. (p. 147)

I also learned from the keeper that Lord Mordaunt — [ whom I discovered [ ___ was bitterly detested in the town for his lack of extravagance ] ] — was indeed in residence as warden of the castle ... (p. 222)

Grove is pressing his case and is winning over several members of the Fellowship [ whom I assumed [ ___ were on my side ] ]. (p. 243)

The man then pointed out a beggar on the street outside, [ [ whom he said [ ___ was once a sailor in a Candia ship ] ]. (p. 400)

... the Blundy girl ... spent much time travelling from Burford in the west to Abingdon in the south, carrying messages to sectaries [ whom, he was sure, [ ___ would in due course rise up as one when the murder of Clarendon had thrown the country into turmoil ] ]. (p. 604)

I suspect that these are not inadvertent slips, or hypercorrections at the moment of writing, but how the writers think case-marking of WHO works in object clauses in English.  (As I said in my earlier posting, there's a long history of such practices.)  In fact, ISOC and ESOC might now be the primary islands of whom use in modern written English, outside of the mainland of P + whom -- that is, object whom with a fronted (rather than stranded) preposition, as in To whom did you give the book? and the student to whom I gave the book.

A final entertainment.  Kenneth Ulrich reports in e-mail:

I live in Sweden, where business is often conducted in English. Last year, I attended a presentation, held by a Swede whose English was nearly flawless, on the things that remained to be done in a certain project. Several of the speaker's PowerPoint slides featured a table with two columns: "Action" (that is, what needed doing) and "Who/Whom?".

I first thought, wildly, that I was witnessing an act of political subversion--capitalist deeds formulated in Leninist terms--but then realized that no one was being called upon to do anything *to* anyone else. It finally dawned on me that the point was to include both singular and plural doers: "who" meant one person (corresponding to the Swedish "vem"), and "whom" a group (Swedish "vilka").

Variation in who/whom use in English must be troublesome for speakers of other languages.  I can certainly see that speakers of a language that marks number differences on WH pronouns would strive to find such a distinction in English.  Very clever, though just wrong.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 18, 2007 02:16 PM