“Whom shall I say is calling?”

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?”


8 comments on ““Whom shall I say is calling?”

  1. Yes, I’m afraid you rather lost me in a couple of spots . . . Don’t disown me, okay? I think I got the general gist of it. And thanks for the trip from Ernestine Tomlin through Cher winding up with the Beatles—well, sort of. And, of course, none of the innocent bystanders who frequent this charming blog of yours will have any idea of what I am talking (if that rather tenuous construction passes the inspector). Suffice it to say that You tube is an amazing resource for a wandering mind or two.
    See, I too can be as clear as mud.

  2. Susan says:

    I am not even smart enough to come up with examples for you to correct!

  3. Michael says:

    Nice explanations. Things become a bit clearer, although perhaps sexist, by using the pronouns “he” and “him” rather than the female forms.

    You can use the “letter M” in “him” and “whom” and a guide. When faced with the who/whom question, if you can use “him”, then use “whom.”

    I know who that is.
    The phrases are “I know” and “who that is”. You would use the subjective “he” in the 2nd clause, so “who is correct” here. (Also, “whom that is” just sounds funny–not a technically sound explanation, but sometimes a decent guideline).

    Is this the party to whom I am speaking?
    As you correctly point out, the 2nd part can be rephrased as I am speaking to whom.
    To check that the “whom” is correct, one would indeed say I am speaking to him not I am speaking to he, so hiM/whoM is correct.

    Again, this is not a solid explanation, but a good rule-of-thumb. I hope it helps.

  4. Thanks, Michael, that does make things clearer.

  5. Philip says:

    Hello! Thanks so much for this, I just woke up to Leonard Cohen’s “Who by the fire” and heard him sing “Who shall I say is calling”. It sounded right to me, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why ‘whom’ was wrong here. Google brought me here immediately! 🙂

    A had a small question, though. In the example you gave of the well-educated author, I’m not completely sure I understand what the actual phrase is supposed to mean. Is it supposed to mean

    1) Be satisfied with the person with whom you are, or
    2) Be satisfied with yourself?

    If it’s the second (and I’m starting to suspect that it is indeed), then it clearly cannot be ‘whom’ in the original phrase, as there is no object (and consecutively no need for an objective form). Or am I making some ghastly mistake? I’m wondering if this is a good test to see if the phrase is sensible. Incidentally, when I first read this phrase I thought that it had the other meaning, probably brought about with the ‘whom’ in the sentence.

    Thanks in advance!

  6. Nancy Hammer says:

    I am so, so happy that I found you!! I was in the process of writing a rebuke to the editor of our daily newspaper, who is allowing the obituary editor, over and over, to print, “…whom she married…”. I had already given him the “who = subject; whom = object” part, which all of us has learned in junior high, but I was attempting to give him some examples. I am so glad that you are here and readily available. Nancy Hammer, Cheyenne, Wyoming

    • I’m happy to have been of help! The example you gave, “whom she married,” seems correct to me—”whom” being the object of “married”—but perhaps the larger context of the sentence changes that.

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