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Dr. Seuss was usually pretty good at grammar. Yet his children's classic Fox in Socks includes this line:

Who sews whose socks?

Sue sews Sue's socks.

Who sees who sew whose new socks, sir?

You see Sue sew Sue's new socks, sir.

The third line doesn't look right. Shouldn't it be sews?

(and that second who on the third line looks like it should be whom, but perhaps Dr. Seuss takes a more permissive approach, particularly as he has to make the words flow.)

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    Sew here is past tense???
    – TheAsh
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 14:12
  • 'Who wrote what on whose what?' is pushing it a bit, but then was meant to be quirky ('1066 and All That'). Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 16:34
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    @Nigel “Sue sew” is ungrammatical on its own. Sew is either an imperative, an infinitive, or a non-third-singular present-tense form (or any present subjunctive form). It cannot be a past-tense form. Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:19
  • @PeterShor You're right, of course. I stand corrected.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:43

1 Answer 1

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It is grammatical, it's just (intentionally) worded in a confusing way.

Note that the question and answer have the same syntax.

You see Sue sew Sue's new socks, sir.

And this has the same syntax as the following, more comprehensible sentences:

  • "I see Sue open the door."

  • "I see Sue do it." (Or in the past tense: "I saw Sue do it.")

After the subject of the sentence, we have in order: a finite transitive verb, an object of the transitive verb, an infinitive, and an object of the infinitive.

Who sees who sew whose new socks, sir?

You can't say "*Who sees whom sews": that would be as ungrammatical as "*I see him sews". A finite verb like "sews" would have to have a subject, but the form "whom", like "him", is usually* used only when the pronoun is not the subject of a finite clause. Seuss's "Who sees who sew whose new socks, sir?" is syntactically equivalent to "Who sees whom sew whose new socks, sir?" The use of the word "who" as an object pronoun instead of "whom" in contexts like these has been common for centuries, so I would not consider it an error.

The sentence is a direct question containing more than one interrogative word, which is rare but not impossible. That may have contributed to your confusion. In a direct question with a single interrogative word, the interrogative word or phrase is usually moved to the front of the sentence, and the subject and verb are inverted with do-support if appropriate: for example, a sentence like "He saw Sally" corresponds to a question like "Who(m) did he see?", and a sentence like "He saw Sally do something" corresponds to a question like "What did he see Sally do?" However, in a direct question with multiple interrogative words, the later ones stay in place, as in the question "Who saw who(m)?", or "Who(m) did he see do what?"

The verb "see" can be used with an infinitive after the direct object describing what the object is doing; e.g. "I saw her do it." I think it's not used very much in the present tense, but the Dr. Seuss sentence is contrived and unnatural in various other ways. The construction is nevertheless grammatical.

The "Who sees who sews whose new socks, sir?" construction would also have been grammatical, but Seuss may have avoided it because in that case the embedded clause would have the same form as an indirect question, which might not be interpreted as a request for information. For example, a question like "Who knows who sews new socks?" might receive an answer like "I know who sews new socks". In Seuss's sentence, the occurrence of a third interrogative pronoun "whose" later on might disambiguate it, but starting out the sentence with "Who knows who sews..." still might cause the reader to go down a "garden path" of misinterpretation. In fact, looking at "Who sees who sews whose new socks, sir?", I find it very hard to interpret it with the meaning Seuss intended for his sentence.


*almost always, really; there are only a few exceptions of disputed acceptability (which I won't go into in this answer, but which you can see described on the following page: The use of nominative "whom" (as in “persons whom it is foreseeable are likely to...”)).

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    Shouldn't it be "who sews" or "who sewed"? "who sew" sounds wrong, maybe archaic. It works here only because of the sound pattern Seuss is trying to use.
    – Barmar
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:08
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    @Barmar. "I saw John crosses the road", "I saw John cross the road" and "I saw John crossed the road" mean three different things. (1) "I observed that John habitually crosses the road". (2) "I perceived John as he walked across the road" (3) "I perceived that John had already crossed the road." The first is rather unlikely in English, as is "who sews". Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:09
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    @Barmar: It's no more archaic than "I see her do it". We wouldn't replace that with "I see her does it" or "I see her did it"; likewise, the Dr. Seuss sentence cannot replace "sew" with "sews" or "sewed" without changing the syntax and meaning of the sentence. The second "who" in the sentence is the object of "see".
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:11
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    @Barmar And while we may not say “I see who do it”, it is perfectly natural, with emphasis, to say “You saw who do it?”. This is perfectly parallel. Imagine someone says “Who sees [=is watching] X sew Sue’s socks?” and the listener misses the name. Asking for clarification would then be “Who sees [=is watching] who sew Sue’s socks?”. Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:26
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    The crucial point in this answer is the observation that current English speakers overwhelmingly do not use whom in situations where they probably would use the comparable pronoun form him, her, them, me, or us. Countless language mavens over the decades have championed the use of whom as logical and proper in various situations where most English speakers refuse to use it. "Who sees whom sew whose new socks, sir?" would surely satisfy a nineteenth-century commentator on English usage—but the world where that person's judgment rules actual usage is not the world we live in.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 19:49

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