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EXAMPLE:

  • James is the man who/whom we know is who won it.

I've been trying to work this out, but for the life of me, I can't work out in such a scenario as shown above if the restrictive relative pronoun is to be an object pronoun or a subject pronoun. That's because I can't tell if it is the direct object of the transitive verb, which in the example is "know," or is a subject of the linking verb, which in the example is "is," the verb "to be" never taking object pronouns but only subject pronouns. Every time I try to work this out, I can't tell which to use because I can't tell what the relative pronoun is actually standing in for.

Yes, the dilemma could be easily avoided by simply switching the restrictive relative pronoun out for "that," but because this relates to some lyrics I'm writing where I'm using some internal rhyming, I really want it to be "who" or "whom," not "that." Plus, avoiding questions only furthers ignorance, and I don't want to be ignorant.

So, in a relative clause, like that in the example above, that employs two verbs, a linking verb that would require the relative pronoun to be "who" and a transitive verb that would require the relative pronoun to be "whom," which is the right pronoun to use and why?

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    "James is the man who/whom we know ____ is who won it". Here, who” is subject of the embedded “is” clause, marked by gap. “Who won it” is a subordinate interrogative clause functioning as predicative complement of “be”. We understand “we know James is the answer to the question ‘who won it?’”, where “James” is the person the whole NP refers to. – BillJ Dec 14 '20 at 18:57
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    James is the man who we know won it. There's a completely unnecessary is who in your sentence. – Peter Shor Dec 14 '20 at 19:06
  • What is it sposta mean? We can't figure it out either, so it's not surprising you can't. Throw this sentence away and write another one that makes sense? – John Lawler Dec 14 '20 at 19:31
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James is the man who we know ____ is who won it.

Here, "who" is not object of "know" but subject of the embedded "is" clause, marked by gap '___' .

"Who won it" is a subordinate interrogative clause functioning as predicative complement of “be”.

We understand "we know James is the answer to the question 'Who won it?'", where "James" is the person the whole NP refers to.

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    Thanks, @BillJ. Once you spelled it out, it became obvious. I just couldn't get my head around it, but because of you, now I can. The pronoun isn't the object of the verb "know" but the entire noun clause "who (James) is who won it" is instead. I remember learning that when a pronoun follows a transitive verb like a direct object does but is actually the subject of a clause that is the direct object rather than the pronoun alone being the direct object, we use the subject pronoun because the pronoun's not actually the direct object but the entire clause it's the subject of is instead. 👍 – Benjamin Harman Dec 14 '20 at 19:16
  • I know. I just basically said what you said in your answer, @BillJ, just in different words. I only did that so you'd know I got what you were saying. Thanks again!!!! – Benjamin Harman Dec 14 '20 at 19:21
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Better to avoid too many who's if you wish to sound more natural. I would simply say

James is the man whom we know to have won it.

Having said that, some say that it is ok to use who instead of whom in spoken language.

You can understand your sentence in this way:

James is the man about whom we know that he (has) won it.

Another possibility to use the subject pronoun is:

James is the man who is known (by us or by all or by anybody) to have won it.

However, as they say the shorter the better, you could probably just say:

James is the man known to have won it.

  • but only in the case when the fact that we know it is not so essential to the meaning of the sentence, and this depends on your wider context.
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    The second pronoun is subject of the embedded "is" clause and hence should be subjective "who" not objective "whom". – BillJ Dec 14 '20 at 19:11
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    oh ok. Thank you. I will edit. – fev Dec 14 '20 at 19:11
  • @BillJ: Bill, may I just ask... In my sentence: "James is the man whom we know to have won it" is whom correct or should it be who? One could turn it round and say: "We know him to have won it." I let myself too influenced by the grammar of my own language I think. – fev Dec 14 '20 at 20:07
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    In "We know him to have won it", "him" is object of "know", not subject of "to have ...". It's a special construction called 'catenative', where the subordinate clause is non-finite -- in this case the infinitival "to have won it". – BillJ Dec 15 '20 at 9:41
  • I see. Whereas in the OP's sentence which I would contract in "James is the man who we know (has) won it.", "who" is the subject of "has won". Thank you for explaining. – fev Dec 15 '20 at 9:54
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By reference to a sentence that does make sense: "James is the man who, we know, is the man who won it", this one still doesn't make sense.

The question looks for all the world as if it were some sort of artificial "confusing-sentence-puzzle", similar to "The old man the boats." or "The man the professor the student has studies Rome," (Both of which can be found by any search engine) and I suspect that this is how the OP has found it.

The sentence is confusing and wrong syntactically because of a lack of punctuation and unwarranted ellipsis and embedding. In this case, to be idiomatic and syntactically correct, as a minimum, it require parenthesis around "we know".

James is the man who, we know, is [the man] who won it.

  1. "we know" is in parenthesis and is capable of being omitted. It is a red-herring to the understanding of James is the man who is who won it.

1a. "We know", as it is in parenthesis, should be capable of fronting the sentence: "We know James is the man who is who won it." but this is clearly wrong.

  1. The second "who", as the sentence is written, has no antecedent other than the first "who". Whereas that "who" does have an antecedent - "the man" (the complement of "James") - the distance between the second "who" and the antecedent is such that the link is difficult to make and the subject thus requires repetition. James is the man who is the man who won it.

  2. The use of "who won it" as a noun clause as the ultimate predicate of "James [...] is" is syntactically abnormal. We do not say "James is who won it", not least because, in reality, the question would be "Who is the person that/who won it?" in which "that/who won it" is a defining clause and the "that/who" is not omitted, e.g. "Who is the person that/who jumped the fence?" (-> "*James is who jumped the fence.") and the answer will be "James is the person that/who jumped the fence."

There may be an attempt at a tortuous case to justify the sentence but just because you can do something, does not mean that you should.

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"To be" has no subject. You can instead write this using the verbal construction "to know someone to be sth".

  • James is the man who/whom we know to be who won it.

There is no right pronoun to use; in colloquial speech the choice is very often "who" but some people insist on "whom". "Whom" is largely restricted to formal style (in the words of CGEL).


Addition intended to minimize the indiscriminate putting down of acceptable language through negative votes

This construction involving twice the pronoun "who" in close proximity is not one of the most current; however there is nothing wrong with it; complex is not wrong. If that is not reason enough to claim would be deserved positive votes for this answer it is still excessive to put down this correct use by so many negative votes. The English language does not necessarily shy away from such complexity and to highlight that, here is a passage from "Augustine's Way into the Will" by Simon Harrisson (OUP 2006).

  • Whoever thinks that in this mortal life a man may so disperse the mists of bodily and carnal imaginings as to possess the unclouded light of changeless truth, and to cleave to it with the unswerving constancy of a spirit wholly estranged from the common ways of life—he understands neither What he seeks nor who he is who seeks it.

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