The perils of parallelism

Passed on to me by Ben Zimmer, a tweet, entitled “To Whom Is Responsible for This”, from author Colin Dickey (most recent book: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places) with this photo of extraordinary whom on the hoof:

I see three contributing factors here: (A) a preference for fronting rather than stranding Ps in extraction constructions; (B) a mechanical application of a principle calling for (formal) parallelism in coordination; and (C) an irrational reverence for the case form whom (rather than who) of the (relative or interrogative) pronoun WHOM.

(The photo is of a bulletin board, for a church or some other organization, but with all identifying information removed from the image, presumably to protect the source of the sentence. But then there’s no guarantee that the whole thing wasn’t just manufactured as a joke.)

The sentence on the board, with the conjoined “free (or headless) relatives” in brackets:

(1) Family is

not always [to whom you were born],
but [to whom always has your back].

(where the but conveys ‘but sometimes’, or the stronger ‘but instead’).

For the moment, consider just the first free relative, which is the predicate in a clause with subject family:

(1a) family is to whom you were born ‘family is that/those to whom you were born, family is that to which you were born’

Clause (1a) is in principle grammatical, but very clunky, thanks to the fronting of the P to of the AdjP born to NP (the clunkiness of to whom were you born?). People get into this because they’ve been taught to avoid P-stranding, as in

(1b) family is whom you were born to (alternative to (1a))

in favor of P-fronting — factor (A) above. That is, they’ve been taught the spurious “rule” No Preposition at End, and they cling to it no matter where it takes them. (In fact, stranded Ps have been in the language for many centuries, and P-stranding is preferable to P-fronting in many contexts.)

Now, (1a) has the accusative form whom of WHO. Though whom rather than who when WHO is serving in object function has been declining precipitously for some time, the context in (1a) — in a PP of the form P + WHO — is what we might think of as Whom‘s Last Stand, the one place where whom is obligatory, even for resolute who-speakers like me.

(1b) is another kettle of fish: who is not only acceptable here, but for a great many speakers it’s the preferred form; for them, (1b) is almost as clunky as (1a) — for me, (1b) is risibly hyperformal — and the only natural alternative is:

(1c) family is who you were born to

But factor (C) comes into play for some speakers, who view (1c) as “incorrect” and would insist on (1b) — or (1a) — instead.

Now consider the second free relative in (1). The intention is to convey ‘that which always has your back, those who always have your back’; the relative pronoun in it is functioning as the subject of the clause, and therefore should be nominative in form: who. This would allow

(2a) family is who always has your back ‘family is that which always has your back, family is those who always have your back’

as the second free relative, and

((1′) Family is

not always [who you were born to],
but [who always has your back].

as the expression of the content of (1). As a bonus, the free relatives are parallel in form, each one headed by who.

Now suppose you are someone committed to (A)-(C) and you’ve already produced the free relative in (1a), to whom you were born, which fits (A) and (C). To satisfy (B), given the to whom in (1a), the second free relative should also be headed by to whom:

(2a) to whom also has your back

and that brings us the appalling (1). The major problem with (2a) is that in the intended meaning, the to whom in it has to represent the subject of the clause, and that’s not just not syntactically well-formed. (A minor, but real, problem with (2a) is the stylistic discord between the extremely formal to whom and the informal idiom have s.o.’s back.)

It’s (B), the dogged insistence on formal parallelism, that has brought us to this pass, but (C), love of whom, plays its part. It’s love of whom that leads to what I’ve called “unprovoked subject whom“, as in the free relative

(2c) whom has your back

in sentences like Whom has your back will save you ‘The person that has your back will save you’ (with a free relative as subject of a clause) and Whom has my back? and It’s Thomas whom has my back (with interrogative whom as subject of a clause, main and embedded, respectively).

Unprovoked subject whom is straightforwardly ungrammatical in standard English, but occurs occasionally, sometimes perhaps as an inadvertent error, but often in the speech and writing of people who do not disavow it, but view it as acceptable, even especially tony.

From my 10/2/11 posting “Unprovoked subject whom“:

Instead of being determined by syntactic configuration (via any of the systems for case-marking I’ve discussed), unprovoked subject whom conveys one or more (overlapping) symbolic associations of whom:

emphasis, forcefulness (whom is phonologically more substantial than who);

correctness (in one system of case-marking, whom rather than who is prescribed in certain syntactic contexts);

tradition, conservativeness (this system is conservative, even old-fashioned);

formality (in another system of case-marking, both who and whom are available in certain syntactic contexts, but whom is used in formal social settings);

social superiority, even contempt (a compound of correctness and formality);

seriousness, gravity

Astounding examples of unprovoked subject whom, put to various purposes, appear on Language Log beginning at least in 2004 (here and here), including a Mark Liberman posting with quotations about the matter (among them James Thurber’s wonderful advice that whom should be used “only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired”).

A connection between Colin Dickey’s tweet with (1) in it and unprovoked subject whom was made explicit by the advice columnist Margo Howard in retweeting Dickey:

Reminds me of Joan Crawford, when married to Pepsi CEO, trying her best to seem like a lady, answered the phone & asked, “Whom is calling?”

Addendum: in between standard (though very formal) occurrences of whom in things like Whom do you trust?, on the one hand, and ungrammatical (either nonstandard or inadvertently erroneous) occurrences in things like Whom is calling?, on the other, there’s a set of subject-related occurrences in two specific contexts — in the constructions I’ve labeled ISOC and ESOC — that are systematically acceptable for many speakers. Two postings:

AZ on LLog, 6/18/07: ISOC, ESOC (link)

AZBlog 4/25/11: The siren song of whom (link)

And then a notable example, cited in my 7/19/11 posting “Annals of ISOC”:

British Home Secretary [now Prime Minister] Theresa May said that ‘it is natural to ask whom polices the police’

Specific structures are involved here. I very much doubt that Theresa May commits unprovoked subject whom (in something like Whom polices the police?), but when WHO (whether in-situ or extracted) is functioning as the subject of an object clause, its, as it were, second-hand object status has led many educated speakers, Theresa May among them, to regularly choose accusative whom rather than nominative who as the appropriate form of WHO, and they’ve been doing it for over a century. In consequence, several English grammarians have treated ISOC (the in-situ version, as in May’s police quote) and ESOC (the extracted version, as in Whom do you think polices the police?) merely as variant forms.

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