The Grammarphobia Blog

Whom dunnit

Q: I think Pat should reconsider the reasoning behind her reply last month on the Leonard Lopate Show to a question from a caller about “who” versus “whom.”

A: The WNYC caller, identifying herself as Meg from Larchmont, asked Pat about the wording of a holiday greeting that summed up a year of travels and visits: “Joy is where we have been … and love is who we have seen.”

The question: Should the second part read, “love is who we have seen” or “love is whom we have seen”?

Pat’s initial response was that the object pronoun “whom” would be grammatically correct, but that “who” was more idiomatic, and perhaps preferable in a casual format like a greeting to family and friends.

The caller then reminded Pat of the verb here—“is.” Traditional grammar calls for the nominative case (a subject pronoun, like “who”) after a form of the verb “be.”

So it seemed after all that the choice of “who” was correct, not just idiomatically but formally as well.

Pat agreed with her, but she spoke too fast (one of the perils of live radio). The question required more than a split-second response.

To make a long story short, “whom” is technically correct. You’re right and Pat was wrong. But we think “whom” is a bit fussy for an informal greeting to family and friends. We see nothing wrong with using the technically incorrect “who” here.

This kind of construction confuses people—even language mavens—because it places the pronoun between two clauses: (1) “love is …” and (2) “… we have seen.”

Which clause should determine the case of the pronoun? Should we choose the nominative “who” (prescribed by the verb “to be”), or the accusative “whom” (as the object of the verb “have seen”)?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that in sentences like these the “pronoun is often drawn toward both the nominative and objective forms by reason of its different relationships to the preceding and following parts of the sentence.”

To be technically correct, however, the pronoun must be used correctly within its own clause. If it’s the subject of a clause, it should be “who”; if it’s the object of a clause, it should be “whom.”

In this case, “whom” is the object of the clause “whom we have seen.”

If “whom” seems too stuffy, though, one should feel free to use “who” or rewrite the clause: “the people we have seen” or “the friends we have seen” or “those we have seen.”

Thanks for keeping us on our toes.

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