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My niece had to change the following to Passive Voice:

Who broke the vase?

She answered:

The vase was broken by whom?

The teacher says this is ungrammatical and the answer should be:

Whom was the vase broken by?

Can someone explain the difference between my niece's answer and the teacher's and exactly why is it incorrect.

Thanks in advance

  • I dislike the teacher's suggestion. Being aggressively old-fashioned I prefer not to end sentences with prepositions. – WS2 Sep 1 '16 at 10:31
  • The teacher is saying that my niece's answer is gramatically incorrect. – Gurpreet K Sekhon Sep 1 '16 at 10:34
  • Because English has many influences it's usually hard to say there is one correct answer. You niece's answer I would say is perfectly fine. The teacher's answer strikes me as clumsy. I would say "By whom was the vase broken?" though normally I am quite happy with ending a sentence with a preposition. – Wudang Sep 1 '16 at 11:01
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    The OP's question is not about style but grammaticality. "The vase was broken by who(m)"? and "Who(m) was the vase broken by?" are both okay. – BillJ Sep 1 '16 at 13:15
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    Technically, the teacher is wrong. The teacher is confusing question formation, pied-piping, case marking, preposition stranding, and formality levels. The sentence produced was the passive of the sentence given. There are other rules beside passive involved, however. All of the following are grammatical: The vase was broken by who? The vase was broken by whom? Who was the vase broken by? Whom was the vase broken by? By whom was the vase broken? They are not always appropriate for the same circumstances, like any different sentence. – John Lawler Sep 1 '16 at 13:49
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John Lawler's comment sums it up:

Technically, the teacher is wrong. The teacher is confusing question formation, pied-piping, case marking, preposition stranding, and formality levels. The sentence produced was the passive of the sentence given. There are other rules beside passive involved, however. All of the following are grammatical:

  • The vase was broken by who?
  • The vase was broken by whom?
  • Who was the vase broken by?
  • Whom was the vase broken by?
  • By whom was the vase broken?

They are not always appropriate for the same circumstances, like any different sentence.

Here's a paper that describes some relevant phenomena: "On the Grammatical Status of PP-Pied-Piping in English: Results from Sentence-Rating Experiments," by Seth Cable and Jesse A. Harris.

In English, the "neutral" position for question words is generally at the start of the sentence. Many grammatical analyses treat this as the result of a process, "wh-movement," that moves these words from another position.

Cable and Harris give the following example:

(1) Simple Wh-Movement in English
a. She left John
b. Who1 did she leave t1 ?

It's also grammatical to leave a question word in place ("wh-in-situ"), as in "She left who?", but in standard English this kind of structure is not the default: it's generally less appropriate than wh-movement except in certain circumstances (e.g. echoing a declarative sentence to express surprise). This is a valid stylistic reason why someone might object to your daughter's sentence. The teacher was wrong to call it "ungrammatical."

Sometimes, other words can also "move" with the question word. The term used for this is "pied-piping," since the idea is that the question word metaphorically abducts other words a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin abducted children.

This phenomenon is quite interesting to linguists so there has been a lot of study of it. When the question word is the object of a prepositional phrase (PP), it's generally optional to move the preposition to the front of the sentence along with the question word. Cable and Harris's explanation:

(2) Pied-Piping in English
a. She left that guy.
b. [ Which guy ]1 did she leave t1 ?

Interestingly, when a wh-element is complement to a preposition, there appears to be some optionality in whether the preposition is ‘pied-piped’ when the wh-element undergoes movement. That is, it would appear that English freely permits both the structures in (3). In sentence (3a), the wh-word has not pied-piped the higher PP. Such structures are commonly referred to as ‘preposition stranding’ or ‘P-stranding’. In sentence (3b), the wh-word has pied-piped the PP, a structure referred to as ‘PP-pied-piping’.

(3) The Optionality of Pied-Piping PP in English
a. Who1 did she leave [PP with t1 ]?
b. [PP With whom ]1 did she leave t1 ?

Although both the structures in (3) are commonly reported in the syntactic literature as ‘acceptable’, the grammatical status of PP-pied-piping structures is somewhat unclear, especially when compared to their preposition stranding counterparts. While speakers recognize structures like (3b) as English, such structures are not particularly colloquial. It is sometimes said that such structures are limited to particular registers, but often what is meant by ‘register’ in this context is unclear. After all, structures like (3b) are no longer a regular occurrence in formal written English either.

So the teacher's sentence "Whom was the vase broken by?" is not ungrammatical either.

However, it may sound funny because in general, the contexts where people use "whom" are also contexts where most people try to avoid preposition-stranding. (This point is also made by the answer to the following question: "Prepositions at the end of sentence and whom".) This would be a valid stylistic reason to object to the teacher's sentence.

As other people have mentioned, this consideration means that the following sentence might be the best, stylistically speaking:

  • By whom was the vase broken?

However, a valid stylistic objection to this sentence is that to most people it sounds highly formal, old-fashioned, or pretentious. Most people would say, and many people would write

  • Who was the vase broken by?

People could object that this sounds too informal. I think that's silly though, so I won't call that a valid stylistic objection. Using "who" in this position (not "whom") and stranding prepositions are both generally considered acceptable by educated people. But if the teacher is a pedant or "stickler," that might not matter.

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In English, "who" is subjective and "whom" is objective. This means that "who" can act as the subject of a sentence, while "whom" is the form used as objects of verbs and prepositional phrases. Your daughter's restructuring of the sentence is perfectly fine in this way, as "whom" is the object of the prepositional phrase "by [...]".

A more common syntactic structure using those same words might be:

By whom was the vase broken?

Or, perhaps a friendlier form for non-native speakers might be desired:

The vase was broken by whom?

However, the teacher is incorrect to suggest the alternative she did. Here's the example:

Whom was the vase broken by?

We see a few violations (which is a lot for such a small sentence). First, "whom" appears to be the subject of the sentence. It isn't the subject of the sentence, but you need to solve a rather complicated linguistic puzzle to figure that out. Two, the preposition "by [...]" is dangling and appears incomplete. As written, we should call it at best expletive, in that it adds no meaning to the sentence, or at worst wrong, as its object is placed way at the beginning of the sentence, where a reader might infer the subject should be.

In all, I would take your daughter's answer over the teacher's any day.

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    "Whom was the vase broken by" is not ungrammatical. "Whom" doesn't appear to be the subject here any more than in sentences like "Whom was the boxer fighting?" – sumelic Sep 1 '16 at 21:46
  • In English "who" is subjective and objective, while "whom", for those who use it, is objective. – Colin Fine Sep 1 '16 at 22:24
  • @suməlic The sentence you gave as an example does not include a prepositional phrase. A preposition's object must follow the preposition. It is less problematic to shift the object of a transitive verb. – R Mac Sep 2 '16 at 13:02
  • @ColinFine "Who" is never objective. Can you please offer an example of what you're thinking? – R Mac Sep 2 '16 at 13:07
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    @RMac, Who did you see? – Colin Fine Sep 2 '16 at 14:31
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As the other posters have said, I side with your daughter.

Passive sentences have the subject receiving, rather than performing, the action of the verb. Your daughter correctly set up the passive sentence. She also avoided ending the sentence with a preposition.

Finally, the word "whom" should be able to be replaced by the word "him." "Him was the vase broken by" makes no sense.

  • I'm not so sure about test-replacement with him. Cf @suməlic's example. – Lawrence Sep 2 '16 at 3:31
  • When you do the replacement test, you need to put the replacement word in what would be the normal position. Interrogatives are often moved to the front of the sentence. – sumelic Sep 2 '16 at 19:24

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