An Interesting Comment

rogersgeorge on May 21st, 2016

I hardly ever get comments to this blog, but I posted a link to one of my posts on Google+ the other day, and a friend made a comment that’s not only worth repeating, but it deserves a post! Go follow the link if you want to see the cause for the comment. Here’s his comment:

I think I get it right most of the time…but still have a hard time saying, “Whom do you think you are!?”….the other thing you taught me and I keep forgetting is where the quote marks go in a sentence…not sure I got it right above…

Lorin Walker (a former boss, by the way, and still a friend) says he has trouble saying “whom do you think you are?” Well, he should have trouble saying that, but not for the reason he thinks! We usually put the subject first in English, and the nominative (subject) form of the word is indeed “who.” So we’re used to putting “who” at the beginning of a sentence.

With questions, however, the subject generally doesn’t come first, the object does, and that’s where “whom” comes in. So you generally start a question with “whom.” Except for one thing: the type of verb.

Remember predicate nominatives? They look like direct objects, except they go with linking verbs (mainly some form of “to be” but also other verbs that are equivalent to an equals sign, such as seem and appear.) So in Lorin’s example sentence, the first word goes with (is the predicate nominative of) the last word, “are”! He could say “Who do you thing you are?” with impunity, and be so correct that he’d fool a lot of amateur grammar nazis.

PS: I just now saw a headline, in the Los Angeles Times, no less:

Who does your member of Congress support for president?
A sure sign that “who” is going to be considered always correct at the beginning of a sentence. Too bad, because sometimes (such as in this headline) it’s not. You can figure out why, can’t you?
PPS: Lorin got his quote marks in the right place. End punctuation goes inside if it’s part of the quote, and outside if it’s not. Except in American English, where commas and periods always go inside.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

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.