When not to use whom

rogersgeorge on January 6th, 2014

Most of the time when you run into a lesson about who and whom, it’s about using whom when you want to use who. I’ve even posted about it. (Search the site for “whom” for a few other examples.) Usually these articles compare the subject (who) with the direct object or object of a preposition (whom).

There’s another time to use “who,” but first a little background. In Indo-European and Semitic languages at least, the verb “to be” and its various forms and equivalents (seem, appear) ¬†are somewhat special. “To be” etc. is equivalent to an equals sign , and the name for this kind of verb is a copulative. Your grade school teacher probably called them linking verbs. Copulatives couple things together. That means that a noun at the end of a sentence that uses a copulative isn’t a direct object. It’s a predicate nominative.

For example:

Tom is a dentist. Tom and Dave are dentists. They are good dentists, and they are also my cousins.

If we use and equals sign in place of the verb, the meaning is the same:

Tom = dentist; Tom and Dave = dentists.

Predicate nominatives have the same case as the subject, even though they might be where you expect a direct object. It’s the verb’s fault. Copulatives take the nominative, we say. (“We” being linguists, grammarians, and now you, I hope.) So this guy approaches the pearly gates, and St. Peter asks who it is. “It is I,” says the man. Peter mutters to himself, “Ah, an English teacher.”

So be alert! Use “who” with linking verbs. Here’s an example of a professional writer (and his editor, apparently) in a Live Science article who wasn’t paying attention:

There’s no telling whom the original owner of the teeth and finger was, but the cave where they were discovered was both a hermitage, or dwelling place, and the site of a grisly medieval massacre. [8 Disturbing Archaeological Discoveries]

That “whom” really grates. It’s not only at the beginning, where you expect nominatives, but it’s with a linking verb, which takes the nominative.

So there you have it. Two times to use who, not whom. As subjects and with linking verbs.


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