Remarkable whom

From the 21st, this posting by a woman looking for a home for her two daughters:

My name is Sarah and I live in Edmonton, Alberta. I have two extra-ordinary daughters (aged 8 and 9) whom have been handed a rough time due to life’s unpredictable circumstances.

Notable whom. There are circumstances (examined on Language Log and this blog) when for structural reasons the choice between who and whom is complex and debatable. This is not one of them; the prescriptive standard here is who. But we can speculate as to where the whom might have come from.

One possibility is that Sarah uses whom in the belief (discussed several times on Language Log and this blog) that it is more formal and “serious”.

Another is that she’s been exposed to the idea that the choice of pronoun case is a matter of semantics — that whom is to be used to refer to the person or thing affected by the action of the verb, that is, by participant role (here, often called Patient). Certainly, in the quote from Sarah, the two girls are indeed Patients in the handing situation.

But that isn’t the way case marking works. It’s not Patient role, but Object syntactic function that’s relevant. Participant roles and syntactic functions are often at odds. Indeed, the relative clause in Sarah’s sentence is a passive clause, and passive clauses are schemes for systematically associating the Subject syntactic function with the participant role Patient; so the wh-pronoun is prescriptively who, because it’s a Subject.

Either or both of these ideas might be behind Sarah’s whom (or that some third factor is at work). We can’t read her mind, and she probably has no insight into the workings of her mind in this case.

One Response to “Remarkable whom

  1. mikepope Says:

    This is an example where the traditional, what, algorithmic advice — try substituting the appropriate pronoun (here, “they”) — would have made it easy to choose between “who” and “whom.” But as you say, one doesn’t know why someone uses “whom” when it’s not needed.

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