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Note, originally my question was "should I ask" instead of what I meant, which is "should I say". Sorry for the confusion.

If I do an internet search about:

Whom should/shall I say is calling.

I invariably get blogs and articles saying that this is incorrect, and probably a form of hypercorrection.

This question follows from a previous question based on an Oxford Living Dictionaries article about whom and who.

In the article it claims that in both:

  • ✗ He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom has ruined his life.
    and
  • ✗ Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, whom just use labels to describe him.

the use of whom is wrong, and it should be who. This seems to be agreed to by the users that contributed to the previous question I linked.

However the Oxford Living Dictionaries also claims that the following two are incorrect:

  • ✗ 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.

However on these two examples the majority seemed to say that objection to using whom in the last two is an old prescriptivist objection, and to quote an answerer:

According to many respected grammarians, the article is incorrect ...

So:

  • He is the person whom won the race.(Wrong)
  • He is the person whom I say won the race.(Acceptable?)

In the second example whom appears to be both subject and object, however more particularly "whom" is the subject of "won the race", but the object of the whole clause seems "I say won the race". At least that's what I understood from the point.

If this is acceptable, then in the case of "Whom should I say is calling?" Doesn't the following apply:

  • Whom is calling?(Wrong)
  • Whom should I say is calling?(Acceptable?)

If we turn these questions into statements I think we get:

  • He is calling.
  • He is the person whom I should say is calling.
    or
  • He is whom I should say is calling.

Is this analagous to the other cases, and therefore saying "Whom should I say is calling?" is not incorrect?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but every every single result I saw about "Whom should/shall I say is calling?" have all said that it's incorrect and that it should be "Who", mainly because the "Who" is doing the calling and therefore the subject.

Who/whom shall I say is calling?

He is calling.

Who shall I say is calling?
englishessaywritingtips.com

Correct: Whom did you speak to earlier?
Correct: A man, whom I have never seen before, was asking about you.
Incorrect: Whom should I say is calling?
grammarly.com

On this usingenglish.com forum thread an English teacher calls it an instance of hypercorrection.
usingenglish.com

On this Quora question all the top answers say it should be "who".

In this sentence, "he" is the correct choice, so you would choose "who" for the question.
Quora question

I take it given all this information my instinct is wrong about this?

  • I should say that you should say that he is calling and not that him is calling. :) – tchrist Jan 21 at 4:39
  • Simplify. "Whom is calling?" Does it still sound right to you? – R Mac Jan 21 at 6:06
  • @RMac No, of course it doesn't sound right, that's why I marked it with (wrong). But there seems to be an extra clause there. To take the original example: "He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom he claims has ruined his life." You might say simplify and remove "he claims", then of course we have something ungrammatical, but you've removed a clause from the sentence that people seem to be saying can justify the use of the "whom" instead of "who", so the extra clause is essential. I'm just wondering if the calling example is analogous to the original example. – Zebrafish Jan 21 at 7:06
  • “Whom should I ask is calling?” doesn’t make any sense to me regardless of pronoun variant because ask (in the sense of ‘inquire’) doesn’t work like that. It’s assuming the embedded clause is “Should I ask/inquire that X is calling?”, which does not work: ask (inquire) cannot take a complement clause as its object. If you substitute say (as indeed you do later on in the question), then it becomes a meaningful, and quite common, sentence. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 21 at 8:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Whoa, major mistake that slipped me, in my question title and once in the question I write "Whom should I ask is calling?" I mean "Whom should I say is calling?", which I write repeatedly in the question..... Jeez, I'm sorry, I don't know how many people took that the wrong way. I'm editing to those two instances to "say" from "ask", hope that doesn't move the goal posts too much. – Zebrafish Jan 21 at 8:56
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I don't think that there is a relevant difference between sentences like "He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom he claims has ruined his life" and "Whom should I say is calling?" If there is a relevant difference, it would probably be that "whom" is a relative pronoun in the first, and an interrogative pronoun in the second. Possibly, interrogative whom is less common than relative whom, but I haven't seen much literature that discusses the evidence for that idea in detail.

The word whom is fronted in both sentences. The 2012 Language Log post "Sometimes there's no unitary rule," by Geoff Pullum, refers to "a preposed relative or interrogative who" when discussing this topic.

However, JK2's answer points out that in Chapter 5 of the CaGEL (published in 2002) the use of whom in this context is described as being mostly restricted to relative clauses. I don't know whether Pullum's views have evolved since the publishing of the CaGEL, or whether the inclusion of interrogatives in the rules given in the 2012 blog post was an accidental oversight.

There is a 2004 blog post by Pullum ("I really don't care whom") that describes the general state of the who vs. whom distinction as confusing and says that whom "hardly occurs in interrogatives at all".

Whom would not be an "object" here

It's not correct to categorize whom as "the object of the whole clause", any more than he is the object in sentences like I know that he is calling. Rather, it is "not the subject" of the relative clause. Hopefully the distinction I'm making between "not the subject" and "object" is understandable, if nitpicking.

Whom is "incorrect" here from a prescriptivist perspective

The sources that you have seen are all taking the prescriptivist viewpoint. The prescriptivist rule isn't inherently invalid; the point that descriptivist linguists like Pullum are trying to make in documents like the linked blog post is that the pattern of usage that the prescriptivists condemn has a logic of its own, and it seems likely that many people who write things like "the person whom I say won the race" aren't just accidentally using "whom" where they say "who" (i.e. it's not just a typo or "production error"), and aren't just consciously choosing to write "whom" because they think it is more formal and they don't know where it should be used (that kind of thing is what linguists like Pullum would call a "hypercorrection"), but rather are following a rule that they have internalized to some degree that says to use "whom" in contexts like this. So it is "grammatical" for them in the sense that it is consistent with a rule that they plausibly have acquired as part of their own personal system of grammar.

From a descriptive viewpoint, things that are consistent with a speaker's grammar are not described as "mistakes" or "errors". "Acceptability" depends on the grammar of the listener/reader. The articles that you have seen use words like "mistake", "wrong", "incorrect", "error" in a different sense, to refer to things that aren't consistent with the rule that prescriptivists have historically preferred. For example, from a prescriptive viewpoint things like "ain't" or "haven't got no" are "incorrect". This is a common use of these words in popular discussions of grammar, but modern linguists tend to avoid using these words this way in scientific contexts.

  • I made a big boo-boo, in the question title and once in the question I wrote "should I ask is calling" when I meant "should I say is calling." That spread to the answers. So sorry, not sure if it changes anything. Will let JK2 know also. – Zebrafish Jan 21 at 9:04
  • @Zebrafish: I don't think that changes anything. I did think the use of "ask" in the original version was odd but I wasn't quite sure whether I had a problem with it, so I didn't say anything. – sumelic Jan 21 at 9:08
  • I've read through your link to Pullum's article. If you're saying that Pullum's rule [3] or [3'] supports the use of "whom" in "Whom should I say is calling?", let me ask you this: Before he introduces rules [2] and [3], he says, "and formal style is the only kind of English I'm talking about here; informal style would of course use who in [1]". That is, if you think of "Whom should I say is calling?" as formal style, both "whom" and "who" is possible, but if you think of it as informal style, only "who" is possible, even according to Pullum. – JK2 Jan 23 at 2:32
  • Actually, you don't have to "think." That's exactly what I quoted him as saying in my comment. "informal style would of course use who in [1]" – JK2 Jan 23 at 4:42
  • @JK2: Whoops, I forgot that [1] was the sentence "He's the man who(m) everyone says will one day be king," which uses "who(m)" as a relative pronoun. So he isn't directly talking about sentences like "Whom should I say is calling?" I think that the issue of formal vs. informal is separate from Zebrafish's question, though. I read the question post as assuming that we are talking about a register that is formal enough to have "whom" as an option. – sumelic Jan 23 at 4:46
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The use of 'whom' in interrogatives is not to be treated the same way as that in relatives, even from a purely descriptive standpoint.

The fact of the matter is, native speakers would not as readily use Whom should I say is calling? as He is the person whom I should say is calling. not simply because whom is the accusative case but because they would find the former as unnatural as Whom is calling?.

EDIT

I've found what I think is a definitive answer in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 466) by Huddleston and Pullum.

The accusative construction is very largely restricted to relative clauses; it does not appear to occur in main clause interrogatives, and is rare and of doubtful acceptability in subordinate ones:

[38] i a. *Whom do you think will win? b. Who do you think will win?

ii a. ?I told her whom you think took it. b. I told her who you think took it.

This appears in Chapter 5, which the book says is written by John Payne and Rodney Huddleston.

  • This seems plausible, but can you point to any sources? "Whom should I ask is calling?" sounds stilted but not immediately unacceptable to me; I tried and failed to find some post by F.E. that I thought I remembered saying that "whom" was less common in sentence-initial position, but I could only find answers that mentioned that "whom" is less preferred when the pronoun is fronted, which is equally true in interrogative and relative clauses. – sumelic Jan 21 at 6:26
  • @sumelic I'm not sure about any source, other than perhaps native speakers would vote up or down this answer, which would reveal if I'm right or wrong. – JK2 Jan 21 at 6:47
  • @sumelic So seeing as all the sources I've seen say that "Whom should I say is calling?" is incorrect (not my view particularly), and God knows how many writers have had this ingrained in their brain, how would you respond when someone tells you it's clearly ungrammatical? Out of curiosity. It's OK if you're not sure, in fact you're wiser if you're not, cause some guy said it once. – Zebrafish Jan 21 at 7:35
  • 1
    @Zebrafish: I'd assume that that person is just using the lay definition of "ungrammatical" where it means something like "breaks a commonly accepted prescriptive rule". The only reason why I bring up the different, linguistic usage of words like "grammatical" in my answers on this site is because this is theoretically a place for linguists and "serious English language enthusiasts", in addition to people who just want practical usage advice. – sumelic Jan 21 at 7:47
  • 1
    @Zebrafish: A person who says that kind of thing probably either is uninterested in or disagrees with the way linguists think about grammaticality, so I wouldn't see much point to responding. They're correct about it being "clearly ungrammatical" in terms of how they understand the meaning of words like "ungrammatical". – sumelic Jan 21 at 7:48

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