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She didn’t fire him. Who?

By Winford James

If you told someone, “The Prime Minister has not fired the minister’’ and they asked “Who?’’, would you say they used the wrong (interrogative) pronoun? If you would, would you argue that “minister’’ is the object of your utterance and, therefore, that the corresponding pronoun should be “whom’’ since it is an object form while “who’’ is a subject form?
Should they really have said, “Whom?’’ How many Standard English speakers do you hear saying “whom’’ in such contexts? A speaker announces, “They have killed a big-shot lawyer.’’ If you wanted to know her name, what would you say? “Whom?’’ or “Who?’’
I have heard both but I have mostly heard “Who?’’. I would say “Who?’’ Perhaps the reason why I would is that I intuitively know that both the context is informal and that there are very few formal contexts in which such an exchange will take place?
A former student of mine asked me the other day, “What’s the answer to this?”: “The minister who/whom she did not fire is Anil Roberts.’’ I told him that English grammar is undecided on the matter and that both can work but that the prescriptive or formal preference is “whom’’, which is the object of the verb “fire’’. If he were to punctuate the sentence with commas as follows, he would see the matter more clearly: “The minister, whom she did not fire, is Anil Roberts.’’
And yet, the normal and more frequent usage is with “who’’. Except we allow the prescriptivists to get in the way, the following utterances with “who’’ used as an object are normal and okay in Standard English:
1. Who did the Prime Minister not fire?
2. The student did not know who the Prime Minister did not fire.
3. Two of the ministers who the Prime Minister fired are Glenn Ramadharsingh and Collin Partap.
But we can replace “who’’ with “whom’’ in all of them and the new versions will be okay as well, only (more) formal. What this means is that, just like “whom’’, “who” can also be used as an object (interrogative/relative) pronoun.
In the utterances above, “who’’ functions as object to the verbs “fire’’ (in 1-3) and “know’’ (2). Utterance (2) is particularly interesting since “who’’ functions as an object to two verbs (“know’’ and “fire’’), raising the issue of why the strength of two object-taking verbs did not pressure only prescriptive/formal “whom’’ into use.
But the matter doesn’t end there. The pronoun “who’’ can also function as an object of prepositions as well. Consider utterances 4-5 below:
4. In the video, who are they referring to?
5. The man in the video is someone who we can’t rely on.
Again, “whom’’ is also good in these utterances.
But it is important to note that the prepositions must be stranded (in the sense that no object comes after them since the object “who’’ locates itself before the nuclear clause—the subjects and verbs, e.g., “we can’t rely’’). If we let the prepositions come before non-stranded prepositions, “who’’ becomes ungrammatical while “whom’’ is grammatical, as in 6-9 (with the asterisk denoting “ungrammatical’’):
6. *To who are they referring?
7. To whom are they referring?
8. *Someone on who we can’t rely.
9. Someone on whom we can’t rely.
Why is it that “who’’ is disallowed in 6 and 8? I hypothesise that the answer lies in two facts: i) it is the unmarked member of the pair “who’’ and “whom’’ and so is not as strong as its marked partner “whom’’ (in which the object suffix — m provides the characteristics of markedness and strength), and ii) as an object, it is never adjacent to the verb or preposition.
Go back to the utterances in which “who’’ comes and notice that, in every case where it is grammatical, it is relatively distant from the verbs and prepositions. But when it is adjacent to prepositions, as in 6 and 8, it can’t make the grade. The morphologically stronger “whom’’ is however good.
It should be noted as well that, probably because it is the unmarked member of the pair, “who’’ has greater versatility of function. Not only can it function as object, but it can also function as subject, as in:
10. It is Ramadharsingh and Partap who got fired, not Roberts.
Where “who’’ is the subject of “got fired’’.
But “whom’’, probably because of its markedness, can only function as object. It is not good in 11, for instance:
11. *Whom fired Partap?
It is not by accident then that Standard English allows “who’’ to function as object away from verbs!
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