Which is correct,"who/whom do you want to be?" In one book I found that "to be" follows who and not whom, but the sentence should have an objective pronoun whom if we go by the normal rules, as it is the object here.

  • @EdwinAshworth: the top answer to that question says "The easy way to tell which is technically correct is to substitute he and him for who and whom, then rearrange the word order to see which sounds right." To me (and a number of other speakers), "I want to be him" sounds right. Do you mean to suggest that this means "Whom do you want to be" would be "technically correct"? – herisson Apr 23 '18 at 0:21
  • @sumelic The question is a duplicate. If you want a better answer, giving it there seems the way forward. / FWIW, I did my bit in trying to redress the ridiculous voting there. As I usually do. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 23 '18 at 12:48

"Normal rules" in this case depend on level of formality and fidelity to the origins of English grammar. Traditionally, prescriptively, the copula "to be" isn't a verb that takes an object. The answer to "Who is that?" asked in the darkness on hearing someone approach might be "It is I, the Scarlet Pimpernel!" "Who do you want to be?" is consistent with that.

People don't normally follow that rule for the copula in English these days, at least not in all but the most formal, hypercorrect speech and writing, and treat "to be" as though it takes an object. If you, accordingly, would say "It's me", then "Whom do you want to be?" would be consistent with that ...

... BUT: "Whom" itself has largely become a historical curiosity. Few people would ask "Whom did you buy that gift for?" One is much more likely to hear "Who did you buy that gift for?" (And let's, please, not even get into an argument over ending sentences in prepositions. That was a manufactured rule.) Few could articulate what "whom" even means. In that context, "Whom do you want to be?" sits on the fence between upholding traditional, grammatical purity and reflecting the way people normally speak today, unable to decide which side it wants to be on.

  • "Prince Charles will be the next King of England". Isn't that an object of the verb? – Barmar Apr 11 '18 at 16:18
  • "What do you want to be when you grow up?" "I want to be a fireman." Another object, isn't it? – Barmar Apr 11 '18 at 16:18
  • 1
    @Barmar: No, in both traditional and modern grammar, "the next King of England" and "a fireman" in those sentences are not considered to be objects. They are predicative complements, like the adjective "green" in "The rug is green". – herisson Apr 11 '18 at 16:20
  • 1
    Yeah. Whom is dead; the best advice is never to use it at all. – John Lawler Apr 11 '18 at 17:56
  • 1
    I have one problem with that, John. I use "whom" after a preposition, particularly when avoiding putting the preposition at the end of a sentence. I naturally say and write things like "the person to whom you were speaking" (though I am also quite likely to say "the person you were speaking to"). It's possible, though, that I make this distinction because my familiarity with grammatical subject/object distinctions in languages that I've studied has made me acutely aware of the use of "whom" in English. – Green Grasso Holm Apr 11 '18 at 18:09

The first word in the question "Who do you want to be?" is not an object. It is a predicative complement. Complements of the copular verb be are not considered to be objects.

Because the subject of be in this sentence corresponds to the "nominative" pronoun you, tradition prescribes putting the predicative complement in the "nominative case" as well: you should use who and not whom, as the book you read seems to have mentioned.

When be has an accusative pronoun as its subject, tradition prescribes putting the predicative complement in the accusative: "Whom do you want him to be?" (In other situations, it gets more complicated.)

I put "nominative case" in quotation marks because it's highly debatable whether modern English actually has any kind of case system at all—and if it does, whether "nominative" is an appropriate label for the case used in this context. But that's the traditional name used to refer to forms like I they who as opposed to me them whom.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.