English English language Etymology Grammar Usage

Whodunit? Oscar Wilde!

Q: This one throws me for a loop: “Who else was there for me to talk to?” My gut tells me that “who” is correct, but I have a nagging feeling that “whom” may be. Can you set me straight?

A: Go with your gut!

“Who” is the right word here. It not only sounds and feels natural, but it just happens to be grammatically correct as well.

(This is generally the case. As we’ve said before, any usage that sounds stiff and unnatural to an educated ear is probably a mistake.)

The sentence you’ve asked about (“Who else was there for me to talk to?”) has an interesting history, which we’ll get to later. For now, let’s look at why it’s right.

The main clause in this sentence—“Who else was there”—is an interrogative clause with “who” as its subject. The additional information afterward doesn’t change that. 

Often when we’re puzzled by a “who/whom” problem, it helps to substitute another set of pronouns. So let’s recast the sentence with “he/him.”

It’s easy to see that “He was there for me to talk to” is right, and that “Him was there for me to talk to” is wrong. “He” is a subject pronoun (like “who”), while “him” is an object (like “whom”).

Simplifying a problem sentence also helps to clarify it. We can simplify the question, and its answer, like this: “Who was there to talk to? … He was there to talk to.”

In fact, we can simplify it even further by dropping the ending, since it doesn’t affect the subject: “Who was there? … He was there.”

We can invent a number of sentences with the same grammatical construction: “Who else was there for her to dream of  … for them to worry aboutfor mom to cook forfor the children to play withfor him to prey upon .. for me to learn from?” 

The fact that the underlined passages end in prepositions doesn’t change the case of the subject, “who.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language regards passages like those as “to-infinitivals containing a subject,” and says these “are always introduced by the subordinator for.” (Note that while Cambridge uses the term “subject” here, the pronouns used are object pronouns.) 

Now for a brief footnote. The sentence you used as an example has a literary history. It appears in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis and published in 1962.

Here’s the passage, from a letter Wilde wrote in 1891 to a young actor of his acquaintance:

“Has Gerald Gurney forgiven me yet for talking to no one but you that afternoon? I suppose not. But who else was there for me to talk to?”

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