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The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Page 466) says:

a. those whom he thought were guilty

b. those who he thought were guilty

Here who(m) is subject of the content clause functioning as complement of thought: it is not subject of the relative clause itself but of a finite clause embedded within the relative clause. In this construction there is variation between accusative whom and nominative who.

My understanding of CGEL's explanation above is that who(m) is subject of the content clause who(m) were guilty and that the relative clause is he thought.

If my understanding is correct and if who(m) is a relative pronoun here, which I think it is, how could the relative pronoun who(m) be subject of the content clause and not part of the relative clause?

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    I don't see where the CGEL's explanation says that who(m) is not a part of the relative clause. What it's saying is that the content clause who were guilty is the relevant clause for determining whether to use who or whom. [Actually, it seems to say that they're both valid.] – Peter Shor Jun 26 '20 at 9:28
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    @PeterShor So the relative clause would be not he thought but who(m) he thought were guilty? – JK2 Jun 26 '20 at 11:32
  • That's the only complete clause around. whom he thought doesn't stand alone. – Peter Shor Jun 26 '20 at 11:35
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    It's common for those who are learning English to get confused as to when to use who and whom. But you won't go far wrong if you stick to who throughout. (Except maybe you might slip whom in after to sometimes, just to prove you know that form exists! :) – FumbleFingers Jun 26 '20 at 11:38
  • @PeterShor Then, how could, who(m), the subject of the subordinate clause, introduce the relative clause? – JK2 Jun 26 '20 at 11:47
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The second case is the simplest to analyse

b. those who he thought were guilty

Step 1 - those who (he thought) were guilty

Step 2 - those who were guilty (he thought)

Step 3 - those who were guilty, he thought (nominative)


a. those whom he thought were guilty

This supposes that "to think" is being used transitively. It seems doubtful in this case.

I can say "I think many thoughts" but what is the direct object in sentence (a)? Is it "whom", I don't believe so.

Some years back, it was idiomatic to say, "He thought John guilty", "He thought Mary shallow", "He thought them impertinent."

These were contractions of: "He thought John to be guilty", "He thought Mary to be shallow", "He thought them to be impertinent."

So think has traditionally been used in transitive form and so we could, according to this convention say:

those whom he thought to be guilty

The reason this is acceptable is that the infinitive cannot take a subject.

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    It's not impossible for an infinitive to take a subject. After all, that one just did. :) – tchrist Jun 27 '20 at 1:57
  • @tchrist I'm not sure if I could say that whom in the last example is subject of the infinitival to be guilty. The subject of the infinitival is missing and the missing subject is understood as whom, but does this make whom subject of the infinitival? In I want them to be dead, for example, is it correct to say them is subject of to be dead simply because the subject of the infinitival is missing and the missing subject is understood as them? If it's correct, should them to be dead be treated as a non-finite clause? – JK2 Jun 27 '20 at 8:00
  • @JK2 I could say it without any difficulty. If you don't allow transformations like Relative Clause Formation, you're gonna have way more construction types to account for than there are categories. It's hard enough with derivations. – John Lawler Jun 27 '20 at 16:58
  • @JohnLawler I take it that you could say that whom in the last example is subject of the infinitival to be guilty. But the rest of your comment is just beyond me. :) – JK2 Jun 28 '20 at 5:58
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those who he thought were guilty

is a noun phrase consisting of a head noun -- in this case a demonstrative pronoun those, meaning those people by presupposition -- followed and modified by a restrictive ("integrated", in CGEL's terminology) relative clause who he thought were guilty.

The relative clause always contains its relative pronoun, but the relative pronoun is not always a constituent of the matrix relative clause. Normally it's the subject

  • those who came to scoff

or the object

  • those whom we scoffed at

or even the object of a pied-piped preposition

  • those at whom we scoffed.

But not in this case. The relative clause here has two verbs:

  1. thought, past tense third person singular, subject he;

and

  1. were, past tense third person plural, subject who (identifying the antecedent those).

This means two tensed clauses, each with its own verb, but different subjects, one singular and one plural.

The relative pronoun who is extracted and moved (to the beginning of the relative clause, right after those) from the complement clause, where it is a subject. By the strict nominative rule for all subject pronouns, *whom should be excluded in this case. Yet CGEL says there is variation.

This is another way of saying that different people follow different rules where whom is concerned. As Pullum has pointed out graphically, for many English speakers the dead pronoun whom has ascended to the high-faluting pantheon of words that one throws into a sentence to make it more "formal". Or something.

  • Funny how nobody ever says that they thought that ✼him was guilty, but the moment you move the subject around they get all confused about this. – tchrist Jun 27 '20 at 2:00
  • @tchrist But nobody would ever say those whom was thought to be guilty. So the choice of who(m) seems to be affected by the closest clause, albeit illogical. – JK2 Jun 28 '20 at 23:16
  • Not illogical at all. Speech is linear and what comes next is most important in interpreting what's just been heard. The more intervening material one puts between one part of a constituent and another, the more likely will be mistaken interpretations of what one says. English has a lot of syntax that shifts things around, but it's pretty flexible in that it's so novel. English syntax as we know it today has been invented over a very short historical period -- something like 5-600 years. And everybody makes up their own grammar, which is always different from others in unpredictable ways. – John Lawler Jun 29 '20 at 2:25
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1) He thought [that] they were guilty.

Here, we have a matrix clause and a content clause.  The verb of the matrix clause is "thought".  Its subject is "he" and its direct object is the content clause.  The verb of the content clause is "were".  It's subject is "they" and it's subject complement is "guilty".  An optional "that" functions as a subordinator.

2) those who(m) he thought were guilty.

Here, we have a relative clause modifying "those".  The words that remain the same between these two examples also retain their functions.  The notable difference is that "who(m)" takes on the functions of both "that" and "they".  Additionally, it relates the matrix clause which contains it to the pronoun "those".

Here who(m) is subject of the content clause functioning as complement of thought:

Where I said "direct object", this says "complement".  Disregarding that, "who(m)" is the subject of "were", and "who(m) ... were guilty" is the argument of the verb "thought".  That is to say, "who(m)" serves the same job in 2) that "they" serves in 1).

it is not subject of the relative clause itself but of a finite clause embedded within the relative clause.

What we're regarding as the relative clause is a matrix clause.  It's the clause with the verb "thought".  The subject of "thought" is "he", not "who(m)".  "Who(m)" is a subject, but it's the subject of "were".  In other words, "who(m)" is not the subject of the relative clause, but rather the subordinate content clause.  That is, of course, an embedded finite clause.

In this construction there is variation between accusative whom and nominative who.

Some people use "who", some people use "whom". That's variation. 'Nuff said.

 

There is something that isn't said.  Not one part of that CGEL passage claims that the relative pronoun is not a part of the relative clause.  What is says is that it does not act on its own as a constituent of that clause.

Here's where you've gone astray: the relative clause is not simply "he thought".  The clause "he thought" does not exist in this example at all.  Those two words are the two words of the relative clause that are not also parts of the content clause. 

The content clause is "who(m) ... were guilty". 
The relative clause is "who(m) he thought were guilty". 

The content clause is embedded within the relative clause.

The "who(m)" attaches the entire relative clause to the pronoun "those".  It can't do that if it's buried behind the subject and verb of its matrix clause.  If we bother to use it at all, we bring that word (or, as in the case of pied-piping, the smallest constituent containing it) to the front of the clause, which conveniently places it next to the word to which it relates.

As it is not the subject of the relative clause, it also happens to be optional:

those he thought were guilty

Expressing the relative clause as a contact clause, however, simply isn't relevant to the choice between "who" and "whom".  Rather, it's relevant to avoiding the choice entirely.

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