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When I am not bound by a style that mandates otherwise, I like to use whom in dative constructions and who in accusative constructions (I am aware that English doesn't have a proper case system, but it is convenient for the purposes of this qn). Let's call this who/who/whom usage, matching nominative, accusative, and dative respectively. This appears to be moderately widespread, the death of whom notwithstanding. For an accusative example, consider Is there anyone who I could ask? vs. Is there anyone whom I could ask?

Are there authorities who explicitly recognise the possibility of differentiating between the accusative and dative constructions in this way? To document what I have looked at so far:

  1. APA 6th stands by the old-fashioned who/whom/whom, saying "Use who as the subject of a verb and whom as the object of a verb or preposition" (3.20). Chicago 6th has a very similar formulation (5.63). The Economist style guide has a nice discussion explaining its identical prescription.
  2. Butcher's and New Hart's Rules both say that grammar should be correct, but say little about what correct grammar consists of. I think MLA also doesn't prescribe on this point.
  3. Fowler's 3rd articulates three rival views, namely that (i) who/whom/whom is moribund, stifling, or artifical, and who/who/who is the right usage, (ii) the righteous who/whom/whom should be defended against the slacker who/who/who, and (iii) who/whom/whom is appropriate for written language, but who/who/who for spoken language (from CGEL). Fowler's further talks about tricky issues about the use of who/whom as a relative pronoun vs. as an interrogative pronoun. Fowler's makes no prescription about this. Who/who/whom is defensible according to Fowler's reasoning, but the possibility of this usage is not discussed.

Bonus points to anyone finding relevant guidance from CGEL.

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Can you give an example of the dative 'whom' in English? As in the answers by psmears and JSBangs, I fail to see a dative-accusative distinction in English. Do you mean, for instance, that you'd use "Whom did you give the ball to?" (not "who…") but "Who did you see?" (not "whom…")? If so, what else? – ShreevatsaR Jan 24 '11 at 11:32
up vote 8 down vote accepted

I'm not really sure what you mean by "dative" in English, as there isn't really an accusative/dative distinction - in situations where other languages might use a dative, either the accusative is used ("I gave him the book") or a preposition ("I gave the book to him"). However, the following might be helpful in articulating why "who" can be used, and may even sound better, where some insist on "whom" - whereas in other situations "whom" is still preferable:

To make my explanation clearer (at the expense of much precision, for which please forgive me) I'll refer to two "styles" of English - one very formal (in which the who/whom/whom prescribed by the style guides is compulsory), and one much more colloquial (in which who/who/who rules the roost, and "whom" is seldom if ever used). Very loosely speaking these correspond to English as it was both spoken and written in the past, and how it is most often spoken today; since trends in the written form often follow those in the spoken we might see current written English as being in a transition between the two.

Given all that, the sentence:

The man whom I saw yesterday was tall.

entirely follows the rules of the formal style, and is thus acceptable.

The man who I saw yesterday was tall.

entirely follows the rules of the more colloquial style, and is thus acceptable

However, the sentence

*The man to who I gave the ball yesterday was tall.

grates. This seems to be because it follows neither the rules of the formal style (which would have "to whom"), nor the colloquial style (which would instead have "The man I gave the ball to yesterday was tall", or a variant thereof), and is thus unacceptable in either. Similarly,

*The man whom I gave the ball to yesterday was tall.

also falls between both stools.

Note that this is largely handwaving, rather than a rigorous argument, but it's interesting to note that studies have been performed in cultures exhibiting diglossia (i.e. using "high" and "low" variant forms of what by some definitions could be considered one language, in different contexts) where subjects were shown words or sentences combining features of the "low" and "high" variants. It was found that some of the features were only weakly associated with one variant or another, in the sense that (say) using one from the low variant in a sentence otherwise fully "high" would not render it unacceptable; however other features were "strong" in the sense that a sentence containing features strongly associated with "high" and others with "low" would definitely render the sentence unacceptable. It is possible that, on a much smaller scale, a similar phenomenon is going on here (though of course it would be very bold to assert that this is the case without much more rigorous research!)

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Thank you, I am very pleased with this answer. The point about diglossia gets to the heart of the matter: the question could be talking about accommodating more informal rules when writing in a higher register. Given the (deliberate) imprecision in the question, I think this is a complete answer. – Charles Stewart Jan 19 '11 at 9:10
@psmears I would point out that while accusative and dative may not seem to exist, but what user Wes mentions is correct. For example, anytime accusative is used with prepositions in German to show motion/change in state, English compensates by adding the "to" suffix e.g. into, onto, (even: "up to" German "ans"). I would argue that the remnants of accusative and dative constructions exist semantically/mentally, and can be used to explain many phenomena in English (although not explicitly spelled out in every case). – macmadness86 May 16 '15 at 5:29
It's easy to find counterexamples to this rule in English. There are lots of prepositions that can be pied-piped; after all of these, whom is obligatory. And many of these prepositions would take accusative, even in German: through whom / *through who ; for whom / *for who ; against whom / *against who ; without whom / *without who. – John Lawler May 15 at 3:03
@JohnLawler: Which rule are you referring to? – psmears May 15 at 6:39
@psmears: The one proposed by the OP: "use whom in dative constructions and who in accusative constructions". It's completely artificial, not specified clearly (what counts as "dative" vs "accusative"?), and represents nothing but a personal caprice. If the OP wants to talk some strange way, that's their business, but it's not clear what way that is. Certainly it's not the way described. – John Lawler May 15 at 13:44

Of all the style guides I have ever seen, none seem to recommend this system. For such a system to be recommended by an established style guide, it think should probably meet at least one of the following conditions:

  • It is in current use by a large or respected group.
  • It was in such use at a time not terribly long ago.
  • It reflects the deeper workings of the language, or its perceived workings, in a more consistent way than actual usage, but without clashing with historical usage.

Failing these, a style guide would have no incentive to recommend it. I do not think your system meets any of these conditions. "Whom" is traditionally used in all non-nominative positions, and I do not believe that there was ever a time when "who" was used for all but indirect objects. When there were still three or more cases, no doubt the accusative and nominative cases differed.

Owing to all this, your system might appear to reflect mere inconsistency to those ignorant of its rules. That scares most style guides, because they usually expect their readers to be snobs to some degree, in that they are afraid to come off as less well educated than they are. That said, after a few pages of text, your reader will probably catch on and appreciate your system. I like it in a way—but I'd be too scared.

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I didn't dare to hope that anyone might recommend it, only that the usage might be documented. As I promised you in last night's chat session, I owe an explanation of why I think it is an acceptable eccentricty, perhaps even one worthy of respect. – Charles Stewart Jan 18 '11 at 13:48

There is no construction in the entirety of the English language in which accusative and dative pronouns are distinguished morphologically. Therefore it seems a bit, shall we say, eccentric to make such a distinction for only the relative pronoun or interrogative "who", and I'd be willing to put good money on the fact that no usage authority sanctions such a thing.

That being said, since it doesn't cause any confusion, go ahead and do it if it floats your boat.

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This is a bit of a weak argument, given how little case morphology English pronouns have at all. – Charles Stewart Jan 17 '11 at 23:05
@Charles, the sparse morphology of English pronouns is the reason for not following your convention. There is no morphological distinction between dative and accusative in English, full stop. The only reason you can invent one in the case of who is that the oblique form whom is disappearing, so you can make up the rule who=dat, whom=acc and no one will really care. If anybody even notices, they'll just think you're being inconsistent with your use of whom. – JSBձոգչ Jan 17 '11 at 23:09
And what is this rich parse morphology? There is precisely one relative pronoun that distinguishes between nominative and dative: that by itself is not a strong argument for ditching whom. – Charles Stewart Jan 17 '11 at 23:11
@Charles, sorry, my original comment was incomplete and suffered from several typos. Hopefully it's clearer now. – JSBձոգչ Jan 17 '11 at 23:13
Relevant, rambling discussion at chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/380766#380766 – Charles Stewart Jan 18 '11 at 0:20

[humour] The phone rings.

Jane: Hello, to whom do you wish to speak?

Caller: Sorry, I must have a wrong number, I don't know anybody who says "to whom"


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I seem to be the Fowler's choir in this thread, but Burchfield's entry on who and whom really is excellent. This quote made me laugh: "'To whom do you wish to speak?' is usually regarded as formal (in some circles superformal...), indeed almost as something frozen, archaic, stifling, or artificial. Indeed a conversation might be killed right there" (A.S. Kaye, 1991, English Today). It's the same joke in a different register, I guess. – Charles Stewart Jan 18 '11 at 13:43

I stumbled across this post while searching for a rationale for maintaining this very distinction.

I think the argument can definitely be made for dative-only "whom" usage. Etymologically, the Old English "hwām" was the dative and is clearly the origin of "whom", whereas accusative was "hwone". I don't think a claim that English has no dative case can be supported because we create the dative using prepositions. It is akin to saying we have no infinitive for verbs because "to" is added.

Aurally, "The man whom I saw." appeals because it breaks the awkward vowel-vowel transition. French largely prevents this by fusing the article with a noun which beings with a vowel ie "l'eau" (although la haine and le hangar [with silent "h"] are permitted). Nevertheless, I don't think this is a good enough reason to use "whom" in the accusative.

Also, best joke on the topic:

-Knock-knock. -Who's there? -To. -"To" who? -To "whom".

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There's already a glide separating the two vowels in “The man who eats”, or at least, a rounding transition. – tchrist Sep 30 '15 at 12:43
If you treat words consistently, this etymological argument would apply equally against accusative "him" and "her." The fact that not using these would be ridiculous seems to me to be a sign that this argument is invalid. – sumelic May 15 at 2:32

I would like to offer support for who/who/whom (I am motivated by the DT Grammar quiz today, 2013-04-15).

Since English grammar derives in large part from German, the German wer/wen/wem offers a hint that whom (corresponding to wem) should properly be reserved for the dative case.

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This is many kinds of wrong. First, English does not have things like dative or accusative. All we have is a general-purpose “object” case, sometimes called an oblique, which we use for any sort of object at all. Second, it does not matter what some other language does; this is the Etymological Fallacy in action. – tchrist Apr 15 '13 at 15:58
And the object "case" occurs on precisely 5 words in the language, me him us them whom, all pronouns and all widely used in other constructions. There's no reason to burden English with cases at all; no Engish noun has any case form. Certainly not Dative, nor less Accusative. – John Lawler Apr 15 '13 at 16:27
@tchrist, John Lawler: This is a little harsh - I explicitly used and excused case as an imprecise shorthand in the question. My understanding is that we can trace the descent of both pronouns back to their common ancestor in Proto-German, which does establish a principled basis for Padraig's claim. Take a look at the comparison table on Wikipedia (from the *Hwa columns): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Germanic_languages – Charles Stewart Apr 15 '13 at 18:39
@tchrist I defer to your expert knowledge - my offering is that of an interested amateur who happens to be fluent in German and finds it to be a never-ending source of insight into the grammar and lexicon of English - no matter that many of these may be difficult to objectively justify - they are a rich source of intellectual pleasure. Maybe because I also speak Irish (Gaelic) regularly, I have an intuitive appreciation of the inflected nature of German. Padraig Mac Carthaigh – Padraig Mac Carthaigh Apr 15 '13 at 19:39
Or the now non-existent Whon - quora.com/Is-or-was-there-a-word-called-whon-in-English – mplungjan Jul 27 '15 at 13:10

protected by tchrist May 15 at 1:49

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