whom can be pardoned

It’s CruzISOC Day on AZBlog! Time to report on Ted Cruz‘s Twitter adventures with the non-standard case-marking of the lexical item WHO (Nom who, Acc whom) as an in-situ subject of an object complement. As here (marked up mockingly by Oliver Roeder on Twitter):



(Big hat tip to Ben Zimmer.)

Speaking very superficially, we’re looking at situations where a V or P is followed immediately by a personal pronoun with distinct Nom and Acc forms: I/me, she/her, he/his, we/us, they/them; interrogative-WHO / QWHO, who/whom (Who was speaking? vs. To whom were you speaking? and Who(m) were you speaking to?); and relative-WHO / RelWHO, who/whom (the people who were speaking vs. the people to whom you were speaking and the people who(m) you were speaking to).  The principles for choosing case forms are known to be different for the different types of pronouns; to depend crucially on the syntactic function (grammatical subject, grammatical object, etc.) of a pronoun; to depend as well on the particular syntactic construction a pronoun occurs in; and to be subject to stylistic and sociolinguistic variation.

I’m going to build up to ISOC slowly, starting with non-WH pronouns.

First, in a plain finite-clause object complement of a verb, as in

(1a) (We) saw it fixes / fixed things

(1b) (We) saw it can fix things

(1a) has clearly finite verb forms (PRS and PST); and (1c) has a VP with a modal verb (can), which occurs only as a finite form (cf. to be able to sing vs. *to can sing).

In addition, a pronoun subject in such a finite clause (underlined in (1) above) must be Nom:

(2) (We) saw she / *her fixes / fixed things

— this despite the fact that the pronoun immediately follows a V.

In contrast, there’s a collection of VP constructions with a head V in combination with a direct object NP plus a non-finite VP complement — as in this perception-verb construction with a BSE-form VP complement:

(3a) (We) saw her be nice to them / have to sing

Modals cannot occur in the VP complement; compare(1b) with:

(3b) (We) *saw her must sing (cf. non-modal have to sing in (3a))

The pronoun must be Acc; compare (2) with:

(4) (We) saw her / *she be nice to them

On to a WH finite-clause object complement. (These come in both interrogative and free-relative flavors, but I’ll disregard that here.) As here, with unambiguously finite (PRS and PST) verb forms in the VP of the complement:

(5a) (We) saw what fixes / fixed it

Modals are fine in that VP:

(5b) (We) saw what can fix it

Now, the case-form of the subject of the complement. Since the object complement is so clearly a finite clause, its subject should be Nom, as in (2) above —

(6a) (We) saw who / *whom fixes / fixed things

(6b) (They) concern who / *whom fixes / fixed things (cf. Cruz’s first example)

Similarly with WH finite-clause objects of prepositions, as here:

(7) (a limitation) on who / *whom fixes / fixed things (cf. Cruz’s second example)

Now, Cruz’s examples have the VP can be pardoned in the complement, but we’ve seen above that modals like can are litmuses for finite clauses, and that finite clauses routinely — indeed, most of the time — require Nom rather than Acc subjects, so Cruz’s whom in whom can be pardoned is unexpected, in fact non-standard.

This is ISOC — the case-form whom for in-situ subject WHO in object complements — and it’s non-standard, but far from unattested, especially from highly educated sources; indeed, it’s been attested for over a hundred years.

An obvious analysis would be that the subjects of object complements have been reanalyzed as objects of V or P, in a three-part construction:

(8) V/P + Object:NPpro + Complement:Finite-VP: e.g.,

concern/on + whom + can be pardoned

Such a construction would be crudely parallel to the construction in (3a) above:

V + Object:NP + Complement:BSE-VP: e.g.,

saw + her + be nice to them / have to sing

But, strikingly, routine finite-clause object complements show no such reanalysis; look back at (2) again. What’s going on has specifically to do with Acc whom, not with Acc personal pronouns in general.

(This is the point where you have to accept that Nom and Acc are just labels for two distinct forms, which could easily have been labeled Form 1 and Form 2. See my 12/2/14 posting “Getting it all wrong”.)

Acc — Form 2 — whom has been steadily declining in use, in favor of Nom — Form 1 — who for a very long time. The older prescribed usage, now highly, even ostentatiously, formal, has whom whenever WHO serves in object function: in To whom did you talk? but also in Whom did you see?Whom did you talk to?, Whom did you say you saw / talked to?, Whom did you say Terry thinks you saw / talked to?, and so on.

But a widespread usage now has whom only when WHO is the object of a P within a PP: it’s To whom did you talk?, but Give it to whoever (not whomever) you want, because the constituency there is not

[ to whoever ] [ you want ]


[ to ] [ whoever you want ].

The contestation between older prescribed forms and the current predominant usages, and especially the teaching of the older prescribed forms in schools as the only acceptable ones, led some people to use whom in contexts where it would not have occurred naturally, resulting in ISOC whom (and its sibling ESOC whom). More discussion in my 7/19/11 posting “Annals of ISOC” (with links to earlier postings on ISOC). (More generally, there’s a Page on this blog on Pronoun case postings, including those on the case of subjects in embedded clauses (ISOC and ESOC).)

Whatever its original motivation, ISOC whom will have spread to new speakers as just a variant — indeed, as the variant to be preferred in particularly formal and serious contexts. People who take some care over correctness in usage will be especially likely to be attracted to ISOC. Which is probably how a striver like Ted Cruz got to it.

(A personal note. Ted Cruz got a Princeton bachelor’s degree in 1992 in public policy and his law degree from Harvard in 1995. Thirty years after my higher education — a Princeton bachelor’s degree in 1962 in mathematics and a linguistics doctorate in 1965 from MIT. But my education in socially realistic linguistics began in high school, and I’ve never been tempted by ISOC and ESOC; in fact, I use whom only when WHO is the object of a P within a PP — which is to say, very rarely indeed.)

Consequently, I find ISOC examples like Cruz’s weird, though I understand that they’re part of a hyper-refined variety of English that just isn’t my own. ISOC examples in which the verb of the object complement is, in its phonological form, indisputably finite strike me as particularly weird. Like the one at the end of this passage:

Henry F. Carey, Privatizing the Democratic Peace: Policy Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding (2011), p. 205: Organizations like the UN and the U.S. are concerned not only with destabilizing a transition or country by identifying electoral fraud, but also with the consequences of those actions for its own interests. For the U.S. that may concern whom is elected.

No doubt Carey would have judged may concern who is elected to be unacceptable, at least for this sort of serious writing.

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