Does that sentence sound funny to you? Well, it should. Not only is it something no decent self-respecting English speaker would actually say, it’s just plain wrong.
Having over the years become accustomed to seeing “who” where the proper form is “whom,” in the last few years I’ve increasingly been seeing “whom” where the proper form is “who.” People—perhaps even well-intentioned but poorly informed copyeditors—seem to be overcompensating. Terrified by the prospect of leaving off the necessary “m,” they’re sticking it in even where it doesn’t belong.
So it’s time for the Grouchy Grammarian to clear things up. “Who” is indeed a tricky word, requiring a rather subtle understanding of two basic grammatical concepts that seem to have been omitted from many people’s education: subject and object.
Basically, a subject acts; an object is acted upon.
He throws the ball. “He” is the subject.
Throw him the ball. “Him” is an object (an indirect one, in this case, but that’s immaterial).
The nominative pronoun “he” changes to the objective “him” when it is used as an object. Very few people have trouble with this concept. (We’ll deal with plural objects, which do seem to confuse a lot of people, in another post.)
In the case of “who(m),” subject = “who.” Object = “whom.”
Who lives here?
My editor, whom I love with all my heart.
Seems pretty straightforward, right? The trickiness comes in when you have “who,” as a relative pronoun, introducing a clause. It’s entirely possible, and not uncommon, for “who” to function as a subject in the clause but as an object in the sentence as a whole. Such is the case with the subtly incorrect title of this post. It’s the function of “who(m)” IN THE CLAUSE that determines whether it takes the subjective or objective form.
To figure out whether “who(m)” is functioning as a subject or object, reword the sentence to put “who(m)” in the position that would be occupied by an ordinary, more cooperative pronoun like “he” or “she.” So taking our title again, we have:
I shall say whom is calling.
Substitute a nice, docile little personal pronoun and you have:
I shall say her is calling.
BZZZT! You can tell that’s wrong just by looking at it. Right? And why is it wrong? Because the pronoun here, whether it’s “she” or “who,” is the subject of “is calling,” NOT the object of “I shall say.” The whole phrase “who is calling” is the object of “say.” So the pronoun stays in the nominative, giving us
Who shall I say is calling?
Let’s take another tricky case—one that stumped a well-educated author I was reading just this morning (or his copyeditor). I’ll modify the inessential parts of the sentence so as not to give the author away. The sentence read:
One is encouraged to be satisfied with whom one is.
If that sounds okay to your ear, apparently you’re not alone. But trust me, it’s not okay.
This is a tricky one to reword, because here “whom” is not really functioning as a relative pronoun. You can’t substitute another pronoun and still have a sentence that makes sense. But you can turn the sentence on its head, like this:
Whom one is, one is encouraged to be satisfied with.
Now it starts to look funky, doesn’t it? Why? Because “whom one is” is the same as “one is whom.” If you can flip a phrase like that and have it still mean the same thing, it’s not a subject-verb-object phrase; it’s a subject-verb-predicate nominative phrase. Remember, we used the word “nominative” above? It’s the form a pronoun should be in when it’s the subject.
So in this tricky little sentence, at first glance it looks as if “whom” is the object of the preposition “with.” But if you turn the sentence around, you can see it’s really the predicate nominative of “one is.” And that means it should be “who.”
One is encouraged to be satisfied with who one is.
There, that’s better. Whew.
Let’s close with an example of a sentence where “whom” is appropriate. (They really do exist!) Remember this one? If so, you’ve just given away the fact that you’re as ancient as I am:
Is this the party to whom I am speaking? (think Lily Tomlin, nasal voice with a little snort at the end)
Turn that second clause around and you have:
I am speaking to whom
which could be reworded as
I am speaking to her.
Sounds just fine, doesn’t it? Here, “whom” really is the object of the preposition “to.” No ifs, ands, or buts. (We’ll talk about conjunctions some other time.)
Clear as mud? Send me your tricky cases and we’ll sort out some more!
And stay tuned for the next episode of The Grouchy Grammarian, Who Part II: “Who Is? Who Are? Who Knows?”