I encountered this curious sentence on page 234 of the 1859 novel Natalie; or, A Gem Among the Sea-Weeds, by Emma V. Hallet writing under the pseudonym “Ferna Vale”, marked here in bold:

In a few words he informed her of what he had learned from Mrs. Santon the day previous, but what was his astonishment to find her totally ignorant of the circumstances, not hesitating to declare the whole a base falsehood.

“I had not a doubt of the falsity of the report,” said Delwood; “but what can have given rise to such a statement? Surely, your mother would not wish to injure my feelings, by repeating what may have originated, without foundation, among the servants, and she could not have herself credited!”

Winnie saw the truth at once, knowing as she did the character of her, whom, if she had ever looked upon as a mother, must from this moment forfeit every claim upon her feelings, unless it were that of utter contempt.

“Mr. Delwood,” said she, raising herself to her full height, her slender fingers clenched together, every nerve ’roused to action, — “if you would not insult me, never again call the woman who has had the heart to cast such a slur upon the character of her whom we know is innocent, my mother! It is not to injure your feelings that she has invented such a vile scheme, but it is by injuring Natalie’s character in your eyes, she may banish from her heart all future happiness. Nay, do not start at such a strange declaration from my lips; you are the only person, out of my father’s household, who has a suspicion that our happiness is not what it once was; but since it has come to this, I will, at the risk of disclosing to the world what it were wisdom to conceal, establish the innocent; and rest assure that what I say is true, — this has originated not amonth the servants, for there is not but would kneel and kiss the very ground upon which are dear Sea-flower treads.”

(The context is that Winnie’s new stepmother has proven to be an ill-natured woman.)

The whom seems to be correct (accusative case, I think: she had ever looked upon HER), but then the “must from this moment...” feels disjointed, not properly connected to the first part of the sentence.

Is this use of whom in fact correct? How would one analyse the complete sentence in question?

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    I think whom here is a pronoun referencing preceding noun her - but it's the subject of following verb must, so it should be the "nominative" form who. This should be easier to see if you remove the optional "parenthetical" element if she had ever looked upon as a mother. But the overall syntax is almost certainly syntactically flawed as well as being hopelessly convoluted. I'm not sure, but it seems to me that highlighted parenthetical element needs to include a pronoun referencing "her" (the "mother") as well as "she" (Winnie). Mar 9, 2020 at 14:08
  • ...or maybe if she had ever been looked upon as a mother. It's a syntactic mess. Mar 9, 2020 at 14:09
  • @FumbleFingers: I don't see any way out of this matrix maze using whom. The penultimate clause still requires a subject, and the subject can't be whom, so what can it be?
    – Robusto
    Mar 9, 2020 at 14:25
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    The sentence is like an intelligence test! As I read it, the words [in brackets] should be omitted, and the words (in parentheses) are explanatory: “Winnie saw the truth at once, knowing [as she did] that the character (i.e. that person) [of her, whom, if she (i.e. Winnie) had ever (=at any time) looked upon as a mother,] must from this moment forfeit every claim upon her feelings, unless it were that of utter contempt.”
    – Greybeard
    Mar 9, 2020 at 16:48
  • @Greybeard: I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I found it hard to figure out exactly how the parenthetical element related to the surrounding statement until I though of sticking the whole thing in brackets and replacing if with regardless of whether. At which point it just seemed obvious to me that preceding her, whom should be replaced by she who. It's certainly "taxing"! Mar 9, 2020 at 18:18

1 Answer 1



Winnie saw the truth at once, knowing as she did the character of her, whom, if she had ever looked upon as a mother, must from this moment forfeit every claim upon her feelings, unless it were that of utter contempt.

the parenthetical and other additions to the matrix sentence complicate analysis.

Stripping to an easier but comparable (grammatically at the salient point) stripped example:

Winnie met the woman who must acknowledge that she had no right to expect any sympathy from Winnie.

The parenthetical in the original does not control the grammar of the matrix sentence, so nominative 'who' is the correct pronoun.

(As FF points out in a comment, the parenthetical should be [and this even if Winnie had ever regarded her as a mother]. Parentheticals need to fit with the matrix sentence better than is the case in the original.) Also, 'unless it were' would nowadays sound better rendered 'except perhaps for a feeling of utter contempt'.

  • The who / whom business seems reasonably straightforward. But I don't like the structure of the parenthetical element. Maybe if she had ever been looked upon as a mother OR if she had ever looked upon her as a mother would fix things, but however I try to parse it, things seem to unravel both syntactically and semantically. Mar 9, 2020 at 14:12
  • Yes; I've changed the parenthetical. It doesn't match the grammar of the matrix sentence exactly, but doesn't grind against it either. Mar 9, 2020 at 14:18
  • Modeled after I know the character of she who must be obeyed, which seems fine to me, I also can't help thinking existing her, whom should be she who (without a comma). But the whole thing is starting to boil my brain now! :) Mar 9, 2020 at 14:44
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    If you look through the specimina selected by the Google Books link I put in the question, you will come across other instances where the author has again used whom “curiously” meaning as the subject of a finite clause. ⁋ 50: “..to that Great Spirit, whom he had been taught was the one great Father of all.” ⁋ 67: “..but he, declining all assistance from those, whom he knew gave not grudgingly, thanks them with a grateful heart..” ⁋ 249: “..for the sake of the child, whom she knew was not her own by kindred..”
    – tchrist
    Mar 9, 2020 at 15:08

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