Tag Archives: who

Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.


The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.

Whom do you believe?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, blog.editors.ca

First of all: If you can avoid using whom, you should. Any but the most formal texts are better off without it; it’s a foreign word for most users, as evidenced by the general inability of even many language professionals to use it quite correctly all the time.

Sometimes, however, you have to use it. The text demands it. When you do, you may be faced with a choice between two voices in your head – the one who says what you would say without thinking too hard about, and the one who says what you would say if you did think too hard about it. Whom do you believe? More to the point, who do you believe is right?

As a general rule, believe the first one. That’s the one that won’t tell you to use “Whom do you believe is right?”

Is that whom wrong? You bet it is. It’s also an error many people make. Here’s what’s wrong and how to avoid it – and similar misadventures.

The key is this: Always look for a subject for every conjugated verb.

We know (I hope) that whom is for the object and who is for the subject (and, if you don’t use whom, who is for the object too). We also know that when we ask a question or make a relative clause, the subject or object of the verb is at the start of the clause:

She is right.

Who is right?

She tickled him.

Whom did she tickle?

A woman knows her grammar.

She’s a woman who knows her grammar.

She tickles him.

He’s a man whom she tickles.

In each of the above sentences, all subjects are in small caps, all conjugated verbs are underlined, and all objects are in bold. Not all verbs have objects, but they all have subjects. In some sentence a single subject has two verbs – “He baked a cake and iced it nicely.” But unless the verb is an imperative, there has to be an explicit subject. And if that subject is the interrogative or relative pronoun, it has to be who, not whom. So:

Who do you believe is right?

Who is the subject of is. And you is the subject of do (which is the auxiliary for the infinitive believe). If you make who into whom, you don’t have a subject for is.

This throws people off because they see “do you believe” and think, well, it has to have an object. “Whom do you believe” is correct, after all.

But when it’s “…believe is right,” it’s not the same. You say “I believe him” but not “I believe him is right” because the clause “he is right” is the object of believe, and within it he is the subject of is. We get tripped up because the subject and object raise to the same position (I’ve added brackets to separate the clauses):

I believe [she tickled him].

[Who] do I believe [tickled him]?

[Whom] do I believe [she tickled]?

The key, as I said, is to make sure you have a subject for every verb. Or avoid using whom altogether. And when you are faced with those voices, ask yourself: Whom do you believe? And [who] do you believe [is right]?

Whom are you trying to impress?

You, my dear readers, may already know my views on whom (it’s pretty much a foreign word for most English speakers now). But a recent study on dating sites found out guys who use it in their profiles get more contacts from women, so I felt it would be worth explaining for TheWeek.com how it’s properly used, since so many people – including newspaper journalists who think they’re being guardians of grammar – get it wrong so often.

How and when to use ‘whom’ instead of ‘who’

And while I’m at it, I look at why we even bother at all.


I was watching World Cup downhill skiing from Kvitfjell, Norway, today, and I thought, “Huh, Kvitfjell. That must mean ‘white mountain’.”

Which, of course, it did. Now, it’s not that I speak Norwegian, but I do know that fjell means “mountain” (cognate with the English noun fell, now uncommon) and I had good reason to expect that kvit was “white”.

You see, although “white” in modern German is weiss, just as “what” is wass and “which” is welcher (or welche or welches), and in Dutch the three are wit, wat, and welk, meaning that in both languages it’s just w now (pronounced /v/ or, in Dutch, something close to it), I knew that in Icelandic, the three are hvítur, hvað, and hver, with the hv pronounced [kv] or [kf]. And I see, looking it up, that “white” is hvid in Danish and hvit in standard Norwegian (yes, the kvit spelling is a different dialect), though the h seems most likely to go unpronounced.

We should also notice that in many of our modern English wh words, there are Latin equivalents in qu: quid means “what” and quis means “which”, for instance. (Latin for “white” comes from a different root.) This is most notably so with question words (note that question also starts with qu), which we refer to as wh words in English (and in fact linguists will often call the set the “wh- words” even in other languages, though I’d rather think “qu- words” would have a more widespread verity).

This is because they all come from the same Proto-Indo-European roots, which had a /kw/ onset – that oral gesture that may be like sucking or like kissing, but either way involves both front and back of the mouth, with a sort of tension between the lips pushing outward and the tongue sticking at the back. As the various Indo-European languages developed, the /kw/ was preserved in some, and in others became /sw/ (as in Sanskrit svetah “white”, Old Church Slavonic svetu “light”, and Lithuanian sviesti “shine”), or reduced to /k/ (as in various words for “who”: Sanskrit ka, Lithuenian ka, Irish ) or even changed to /p/ or /pw/ (Greek poteros and Welsh pwy for “who”), or – as in Germanic languages – altered to /hw/ and in some cases ultimately reduced to /w/. (And in some Scots English dialects, under the influence of Gaelic phonotactics, the /hw/ has sometimes moved to /f/, as in fit “what” – the voicelessness and labial location are preserved, but the rest is changed.)

This leaves us with two questions particularly relevant to English. First, are white and what and which now /w/ onset words, at least in some versions of English? Second, why do we write them with wh when obviously we say either /w/ or /hw/ but never /wh/?

To look at the first question first: here in Canada, as in much of the United States, you will normally hear them with just /w/. But the odds are pretty good that there’s still a citation form (as linguists call them) with a /hw/. Get someone to say “I saw a wight which saw a white witch” and then have someone ask them to repeat it more clearly, and you have a good chance of hearing the /hw/ on the wh words. For that matter, there are times (say, when addressing an impatient woman briefly) when one might say Which? very clearly so as not to be thought to be saying Witch! And some people will find they are more likely to say /hw/ in some contexts – for instance, Rosemary Tanner (who suggested this exploration) finds that white gets the voiceless onset when referring to snow and freshly washed laundry. At the same time, of course, we have lots of fun with the usual homophony, for instance with Which witch is which? So there’s no question of our not being aware that we usually say it just /w/!

There is, by the way, some question of whether it’s really accurate to say it’s /hw/. Say /h/, as in the start of how. Now say /w/ as in win. Now tack the one onto the other: h-win. Does that seem quite like what you say when you say when? Or maybe a bit too separated? Dollars to doughnuts your lips are already rounded when you start the /h/ sound, in fact. So really it’s a voiceless /w/ (the IPA symbol is /ʍ/, an upside-down w), and it might get some voicing at the end.

But it undoubtedly came from a /hw/, which came from a /kw/. And in fact in Old English it was written hw. So hwat happened? Well, it changed during the Middle English period. Somewhere in the 1200s scribes started using wh, possibly under the influence of some Norman French spellings of some words (that’s how we got our sh and ch spellings for what had up to then been written sc and c). We’re not actually altogether sure why the change was made, in fact.

But it didn’t happen all at once; it was dragged out, and uneven. In fact, the list of different spellings of white in the OED is rather long, starting with the old hwit and moving to such as wit and wyt (yes, at one time we left off the h in spelling) as well as to whit and whyte and so on but also to an assortment of others, such as qwyte, quhyt, and qwyght.

The same pattern holds true for our various wh question words, of course. The interesting case is who, wherein the /w/ has been altogether dropped; it started out as hwa in Old English, but once the sound had moved to be /hwu/, the more natural progression was to /hu/, assimilating the two rounded sounds and keeping the voiceless opener for an onset. Interestingly, this also happened to the Old English hwo, which became hu… and then, in Modern English, how. How do you like that? And who would have thought it, eh? What do you know…

“Whom” is a foreign word

Yet again I’ve been discussing with colleagues the question of where to use whom (and, more particularly, whomever – see I must disagree with whoever wrote that). One thing the issue shows us (in case we hadn’t noticed) is that whom and whomever are no longer parts of current English. By which I mean they are not part of the language that most English speakers speak – they are, effectively, foreign words, or at best part of a second language that the user may not be altogether comfortable with. Continue reading

I must disagree with whoever wrote that

Consider the case of a sentence such as the following:

I must agree with whomever wrote this.

Is that correct?

Nope. Continue reading