Should who or whom be used in the following sentence?

All the swans seen by other people whom I know have been white.

My first thought was whom is correct because it's part of a prepositional phrase, but there's a lot going on in that phrase, and so now I'm not sure.

  • 'Whom' is dying a slow death. If you look up other questions here about usage, you'll discover that the received opinion is that it should only (if ever) be used directly after a preposition. You could certainly use 'who' in your example (unless your editor etc is a hyper-traditionalist), but you might be better simply restructuring. 'All the swans that other people I know have seen have been white.' Jul 15, 2016 at 16:54
  • 2
    Do you need it at all? Is there something wrong with "All the swans seen by other people I know have been white"?
    – Catija
    Jul 15, 2016 at 16:55
  • @Catija Isn't that ambiguous? Jul 15, 2016 at 16:57
  • @EdwinAshworth It's ambiguous either way, as far as I'm concerned. Seems like a very odd sentence. "All of the other people I know have only ever seen white swans" seems to be a much clearer construction.
    – Catija
    Jul 15, 2016 at 16:59
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    In formal register, assuming that you are employing the traditional distinction that whom is the object form of who, it ought to be whom here—not because it's part of a prepositional clause (it is, but not as an object in itself), but because it's the object of know. Incidentally, why is this tagged passive-voice? The only passive in the sentence (and that's reduced to an appositive) is seen, which is irrelevant to the who/whom question… Jul 16, 2016 at 8:12

1 Answer 1


Whom is your right choice here, Greg, meaning your gut was right. I do want to clarify why, though.

All the swans seen by other people whom I know have been white.

In this sentence, whom is a relative pronoun that is the direct object of the verb know. This pronoun is receiving the action of being known. I know him, and he knows me. It's hard to tell because there is an unwritten rule of English saying that all of the wh- words, like "what," "why," and "how," must go at the beginning, which is why it doesn't read, "I know whom."

The relative clause, whom I know, describes the noun people. That very noun is then the object of the preposition, by. In case you're confused about the purpose of whom in relative clauses, here are more examples.

  1. The people whom I give apples to eat them up! (Object of prep)

  2. The employees whom the employer pays hate the place. (Direct object of verb)

Just remember that there are predicate nominatives, which are responsible for recognizing that the noun or pronoun after the verb is the same as the subject. Verbs that follow PNs won't work in the passive voice.

  1. Who are you! I am he. (Because the last sentence says that he and I are the same people, the pronoun after the verb is the same thing as I. He is now a predicate nominative. Also, "He is been by me," makes no sense at all. This tells us that "to be" doesn't follow objects ever.)

  2. Who have you become lately? You became he. (By transforming into him, you and he are the same person, making he a PN. Also, in passive voice, "He is become by you," makes no sense. The verb know takes objects and will therefore make sense in the passive voice. "He is known by you," but never "He is become by you," because become never takes an object.)

Have a great day!

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