Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Note on Relative Pronouns

To start with, the rule: Relative pronouns take their gender, number, and person from their antecedent; they take their case from their use in their own clause.

On August 22, 2102, Glenn Greenwald posted an article on the Guardian's US website entitled The bizarre, unhealthy, blinding media contempt for Julian Assange. In this article Glenn used the following sentence [emphasis added]:

The person who (along with whomever is the heroic leaker) enabled "more scoops in a year than most journalists could imagine in a lifetime" – and who was quickly branded an enemy by the Pentagon and a terrorist by high U.S. officials – is the most hated figure among establishment journalists, even though they are ostensibly devoted to precisely these values of transparency and exposing serious government wrongdoing.
Leaving aside the prolix nature of Glenn's prose, which causes problems for those who have difficulty with texts that are not written in short, declarative sentences and who have even more difficulty holding a thought long enough to process a subordinate clause, I wish only to address the flagrant solecism presented by the emphasized text in the sentence given above. We can see from the rule given in the first paragraph that the case of a relative pronoun is determined by its use in its own clause. For most relative pronouns this causes no problem because only one relative pronoun (who) has a marked form for the object case (whom).

Now, along with is an idiom that functions as a preposition meaning ‘in association with’ or ‘in conjunction with’. It is more or less synonymous with together with, which is similarly composed of an adverb plus a preposition and is also an idiom that functions as a preposition.

Clearly then, along with governs the object case and we would expect what follows to be in the object case. However, in this instance, the object is not the indefinite relative pronoun whomever, but the entire clause whomever is the heroic leaker. Since the relative pronoun takes its case from its use in its own clause, it is clearly the subject of the verb is and so should be in the subject case, not the object case.

The correct usage then is along with whoever is the heroic leaker.

Pronouns often cause even experienced writers and speakers problems because they represent the last vestiges of English's once extensive case system. The choice between I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, they/them, and who/whom presents the writer with an unexpected choice between the subject case and the object case – unexpected because nowhere else is this choice necessary and the writer is not used to exercising it. Still, a word to the wise is sufficient and doubtless Glenn will be on his guard against repeating this error.


John Cowan said...

What this shows is that whom is beyond being on its last legs: it is now on a ventilator (that is, only windy persons use it).

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

It's true that whom is dying out in speech and informal writing, but this may more true of the interrogative pronoun than the relative pronoun. It's common to say things like "Who did you meet last night?" while "Whom did you meet last night?" sounds somewhat stilted. Besides, the relative pronoun has other options that obviate the who/whom choice. For instance, instead of saying "this is the man whom I met last night" you can use a zero relative, "this is the man I met last night", or you can use that, "this is the man that I met last night.

Still, there is a tendency to use whom after a preposition: "never send to know for whom the bells tolls". Somehow, "for who the bell tolls" doesn't have the same ring to it. The trick with the relative pronoun who/whom is to be able to tell whether the pronoun is the subject of its clause or is an object within the clause.

John Cowan said...

Fair enough, whom right after a preposition survives, at least in some styles. But in that situation there is no issue of case in the matrix clause vs. case in the embedded clause.

Frankly, my dear, ... said...

No, that is precisely where Glenn made his mistake. In an embedded clause introduced by a relative pronoun, the relative pronoun takes its case from its use in the embedded clause. Even if the relative clause follows a preposition, the relative pronoun is not automatically in the object case because of the preposition if the embedded clause is the object of the preposition and the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause.

While it is quite acceptable to use who when whom would be grammatically correct ("I want to know who you are meeting tonight" instead of "I want to know whom you are meeting tonight"), it is not acceptable to use whom when who is grammatically correct (*"I want to know whom is meeting you tonight" instead of "I want to know who is meeting you tonight").

Relative pronouns always appear in embedded clauses and their case is determined by their use in their own clause. Interrogative pronouns can can occur in both matrix and embedded clauses (and independent clauses as well). It is customary to use the who form unless the interrogative pronoun follows a preposition.

In brief, who instead whom as object – okay; whom instead of who as subject – bad.