Who or whom

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Anya Lunden wrote me yesterday with an instance of "who or whom", from commenter i_am_right on Jon Carroll's San Francisco Chronicle column:

We still don't know who or whom the Zodiac killer is or was … (link)

Lunden wondered whether the writer was using whom to convey some category distinction, like gender (or, in some of the examples below, number), or whether the writer was just wrestling with the problem of choosing who or whom in this context. I'm inclined to the latter idea. But first a little more data.

There are quite a few examples out there, of two types. In the first type, the complement-initial wh word represents an object in the complement clause (the position of which is indicated in these examples by an underline). In these circumstances, what I called in an earlier posting the Prescriptive System would insist on whom, while what I called in that posting the Standard System would use who (in a later posting I referred to the two systems more neutrally as System A and System B, respectively). People who naturally would use who here might nevertheless appreciate that some people insist on whom; who or whom is then a way of covering all the bases. Three examples:

If you know who or whom you are going to approach ___ for finance, do some quick research. (link)

I want to know who or whom I can trust ___ with my cash and support now and in the near future to run the best next campaign for GLBTQ marriage and other civil rights equality. (link)

I wonder who or whom increasing the percentage will benefit ___. There is always an agenda. (link)

In the second type, both systems would call for who, but another consideration leads some writers to go for whom. What happens is that the wh expression is preceded by a complement-taking verb, and it is treated as if it, and not the whole complement clause, was the object. Sometimes the wh expression is the subject of the clause. The result is a configuration I've called ISOC, for "in-situ subject of an object clause", as in this example with who or whom:

If you wish to see the WHOLE TRUTH of this matter for yourself, do a search on Google for "An Open Public letter to the UPS Membership" detailing just who or whom is the liar, hypocrite, and actual TROLL. (link)

In other cases, the wh expression represents a predicative NP in the complement clause, fronted to initial position in the clause. I suppose this should be called EPOC, for "extracted predicative in an object clause". This is the configuration in the Zodiac killer sentence:

We still don't know who or whom the Zodiac killer is or was ___

Here are two more:

Find Out Who (or Whom) . . . your hero or heroine must be ___ to hook agents, editors and readers into your story and who your villain must (and must not) be to make him truly real and terrifying (link)

After much searching and climbing through thigh-high snow banks, the remaining survivors [surviving chickens] were placed in a small room in the garage of the Rasmusson home until further work and research can be done to discover who or whom the murderer(s) was or were ___ (link)

In ISOC and EPOC (and also in ESOC, "extracted subject of an object clause", not illustrated in this posting), the wh expression is in a position to "pick up" accusative case, though this is not what the Prescriptive System would call for. Still, occurrences of whom in these configurations are so common, and have been common for such a long time, that I've suggested treating it simply as an alternative form available for those who use the Prescriptive System. In any case, these are configurations where writers might be unsure about what the "correct" form is and so opt for who or whom.


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