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Now, while I think I have come to terms with 'who' and 'whom', I read an article from Oxford Dictionaries that confused me: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/usage/who-or-whom

This article states that 'the elderly woman' and 'journalists' are the subjects of these two sentences, and thus, 'who' should be used instead of 'whom':

✗ He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom has ruined his life.

✗ Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, whom just use labels to describe him.

However, I believe they are actually the objects of the two sentences. If I were to replace them with pronouns, they would be in the accusative case.

'He is demanding £5,000 from her [the elderly woman].' 'Mr Reynolds is highly critical of them [journalists].'

Because the two nouns would be in the accusative case, shouldn't 'whom' actually be used instead of 'who', despite what Oxford says? I would like to know if I am missing something here.

Thanks in advance!

  • BillJ, while what you say is true, it does still confuse me a bit. In the sentence, 'the man whom you saw yesterday is coming to dinner' (which the article actually deems correct), the relative clause begins with 'whom'. Is Oxford Dictionaries incorrect by putting the relative pronoun 'whom' there instead of 'who'? Also, I've read a few webpages that state that 'whom' can be the relative pronoun for a relative clause (e.g. esl.fis.edu/grammar/rules/relative.htm) because it relates to the objects of the sentences. Are these webpages also making a mistake? – Tolga Jan 20 at 13:07
  • Let me try again. The Oxford article is correct. In your first example, the relative pronoun is subject of the embedded clause "has ruined his life", so nominative "who" is correct. Likewise, the relative pronoun " is subject of the embedded clause "use labels to describe him", so again "who" is correct. The relative pronouns have "elderly woman" and "journalists" as antecedent, so it's easy to see why the Oxford says they are the subjects, since in a way they are. – BillJ Jan 20 at 14:00
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The relevant portion of the linked article is sloppily written.

It is correct to say that "whom" is ungrammatical in these sentences:

He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman who has ruined his life.

Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, who just use labels to describe him.

It is incorrect to describe "elderly woman" and "journalists" as "grammatical subjects".

  • The noun phrase "the elderly woman" is the object of the preposition "from", and the antecedent of the relative pronoun "who", which is what actually acts as the subject of the relative clause "who has ruined his life".

  • The noun phrase "journalists" is the object of the preposition "of", and the antecedent of the relative pronoun "who", which is what actually acts as the subject of the relative clause "who just use labels to describe him".

The grammatical role of the antecedent is not the same as the grammatical role of the relative pronoun, and so each is assigned a different case.

In sentences like this, you shouldn't match the case of a relative pronoun to its antecedent; consider that we wouldn't match the case of a non-relative pronoun like they/them to its antecedent. We would say "Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists. They just use labels to describe him," not *"Them just use labels to describe him."

"...from the elderly woman whom he claims has..."

According to many respected grammarians, the article is incorrect (although repeating a common prescriptivist peeve) when it describes the use of whom in the following sentences as "wrong" or "a mistake":

He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom he claims has ruined his life.

Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, whom he says just use labels to describe him.

Here, whom stands for the subject of a clause embedded within the relative clause. In the first sentence, the relative clause (with "claims") has the subject "he", and the further embedded clause (with "has ruined..") has the subject "who(m)". Because the relative pronoun is the subject of the most embedded clause, "traditional grammar" calls for the use of "who", but the fact that it is not the subject of the relative clause seems to make "whom" possible here for at least some English speakers.

From what I remember, Huddleston and Pullum's CaGEL describes the use of "whom" in such contexts as so established in the usage of educated adults that it should be considered grammatical (for speakers who use it). Here is a Language Log post by Arnold Zwicky that makes this point: "ISOC, ESOC". Admittedly, this is a rather technical point; if you are uninterested in the study of descriptive grammar and just want to learn the pattern of usage that is most likely to be considered "correct" by others, it's safer to go with who in sentences like these.

This construction is the topic of an older question on this site, The use of nominative "whom" (as in “persons whom it is foreseeable are likely to...”) See user F.E.'s comments below the question post for more references to descriptive treatments of the use of whom in this context.

  • So, regarding the versions with the embedded clauses, the matter of whether whom or who is right depends on which grammarian you ask? – Zebrafish Jan 20 at 13:47
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    @Zebrafish: A descriptive grammarian would say that it depends on the identity of the speaker: "whom" is grammatical for some speakers, but not all. "Who" should be acceptable for all speakers because "who" is used as both a subjective- and objective-case form in modern English grammar. A prescriptivist would say that "whom" is "incorrect" for all speakers. The difference is that from a descriptive viewpoint, the answer to the question "is this grammatical" is supposed to have an internal rather than an external answer for each speaker. – sumelic Jan 20 at 13:48
  • Saying the same sentence is grammatical for person A's utterance but not for person B's same utterance kind of sounds strange, considering that grammar is supposed to be a set of rules. Wouldn't it make more sense to simply say that grammarians are simply in disagreement about about whether "who" or "whom" is correct grammar in this case, in other words they disagree about the rules? – Zebrafish Jan 20 at 13:57
  • @Zebrafish: Consider that something may be "grammatical" in one language, but "ungrammatical" in another. We can see this as a top-down thing ("Authority A" determines what grammar is for language A, and "authority B" determines what grammar is for language B) but descriptive grammarians see it as a bottom-up thing: the speakers of language A have different grammar than the speakers of language B. We also see variation within any single language that is supposed to reflect variation in the grammar used by speakers of that language. – sumelic Jan 20 at 14:00
  • @Zebrafish, almost all academic linguists prefer descriptive grammar, where the grammar is the innate, mostly unconscious, rules that native speakers use. The job of the descriptive grammarian is to work out what those rules are, they recognise that they can vary with such things as social context. – Colin Fine Jan 20 at 14:04
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"He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman wh?? has ruined his life."

The confusion is because "elderly woman" is the [indirect] object in the first half, and the subject of the second.

As a test, split it into two sentences leaving a gap where who or whom was. "He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman." "___ has ruined his life". If the missing word would be she/he, use who; if it's her/him, use whom[1].

In this case it's clearly she, therefore who.

[1] I think it works the same for plurals too: they -> who, them -> whom.

  • The original text looks like a case of over compensation by someone who does not understand how 'whom' works but knows it would ignorant not to use the word in this sentence. – JeremyC Jan 21 at 8:56
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Both example sentences have two finite verbs:

He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman *whom has ruined his life.

Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, *whom just use labels to describe him.

In both cases, there is a relative clause with a second subject before the second finite verb. "Whom" shouldn't be used as a subject1, so it should be "who".

Corrected, the sentences are:

He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman who has ruined his life.

Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, who just use labels to describe him.

Most people don't use "whom" at all, except in certain well known phrases such as "To whom it may concern", so in most environments you can always use "who" instead of "whom".


1 In my sentence, "Whom" substitutes for "The word 'whom'", so it is grammatically correct.

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