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I am writing a story and would like to know which one is correct:

a) "...and it was impossible to know who was sheltering whom."

b) "...and it was impossible to know who was sheltering who."

I tried to apply the 'replace who by he/him' method, but I didn't figure out yet.

I appreciate your help.

marked as duplicate by Janus Bahs Jacquet, J. Taylor, Edwin Ashworth, jimm101, David Jun 7 '18 at 22:01

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  • This perhaps provides a rare exception to the modern 'never use whom except after a preposition' rule. Though I'd certainly not consider 'who' unacceptable. @sumelic's 'rule' is predicated on a hyperprescriptivist approach and so is inadequate. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 3 '18 at 22:08
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    @EdwinAshworth: The question seems to be asking for an answer based on a prescriptivist approach, as it references the "replace who by he/him method" which is only valid from a prescriptivist perspective. As you say, even in a modern style, "whom" doesn't seem like it would be unacceptable here, so I don't see the need to complicate things with more details about patterns of actual usage that contradict that "rule". – sumelic Jun 3 '18 at 22:11
  • @sumelic Our greater responsibility is to many other potential enquirers than OP, and you know you're focusing on an approach largely regarded as at best archaic. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 3 '18 at 22:34
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    @sumelic I disagree. The question seems to be tacitly assuming that the prescriptivist decree (which prescriptivists don't follow) exists as a rule, presumably because they have been told it is so, and then asking directly: In English, do we need 'who' or 'whom' here?. The answer is: yes, either. Note that we are talking interrogative who/m here - and no-one follows that rule for interrogative who/m, whatever they may pretend they do. – Araucaria Jun 4 '18 at 1:18
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    Labels aside, I for one like the texture that whom gives to sentences ... when properly used, of course, in the appropriate context, register, etc.. – Lawrence Jun 4 '18 at 1:47
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Make a simple sentence with the shelter:

  • The man sheltered Dooby for the night as Dooby was lost.

What information does one get there? Very simple, the verb to shelter can take a direct object.

That would then allow one to write:

Therefore, it was not impossible to tell who [subject] was sheltering whom. [see? Direct object.]

There is a trick: If Dooby is a dog, it would be probably be a what.

[I know hell fire will rain down. :)]

You look up the verb and see whether it can transitive, and therefore take a direct object:

transitivity of the verb shelter

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Here's how to use the "replace by he/him method" here: "He was sheltering him" > "who was sheltering whom". So "..and it was impossible to know who was sheltering whom" uses "whom" correctly, according to that rule.

As you may have seen, Johnny, some commenters think that you may not be aware of the fact that the prescriptive "rule" or "method" you mention isn't actually an accurate guide to using who and whom appropriately from a descriptive point of view. That's really a separate topic, and there are many other posts on this site that deal with it, such as ShreevatsaR's and nohat♦'s answers to "What’s the rule for using “who” and “whom” correctly?".

You can also see notes on the usage of whom in dictionaries like Merriam Webster, which says

  • now often considered stilted especially as an interrogative and especially in oral use

  • Observers of the language have been predicting the demise of whom from about 1870 down to the present day. [...] Our evidence shows that no one—English or not—should expect whom to disappear momentarily; it shows every indication of persisting quite a while yet. Actual usage of who and whom—accurately described at the entries in this dictionary—does not appear to be markedly different from the usage of Shakespeare's time. But the 18th century grammarians, propounding rules and analogies, rejecting other rules and analogies, and usually justifying both with appeals to Latin or Greek, have intervened between us and Shakespeare.

This information is relevant to your question because "who was sheltering whom" is an interrogative use of "whom". It would also be correct to say "...it was impossible to know who was sheltering who". "Whom" is possible, but not required after "sheltering". If you are writing dialogue, it may be a good idea to avoid using "whom" in sentences like this unless you want to give the impression that the speaker is a pedant.

I don't know of any grammatical reason to use "whom" instead of "who" before "was" in your sentence, or any group of speakers that would tend to use "whom" in this context, so I would advise against doing that.

  • Re. your last paragraph: "whom was sheltering who" would be wrong since "whom" is, by definition, the object, but in that position it would indicate the subject of "was" – msam Jun 4 '18 at 8:04
  • Sure, who and who, but if the OP wants a rule, he got one. Of course, whom before was would be completely wrong. "Who is going to the party?" She wanted to know who was going to the party. She did not want to know him. "Whom did she want to know?" – Lambie Jun 4 '18 at 12:45

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