Who am I kidding?

(Note: in this posting I’m going to be unrelentingly careful about the way I frame descriptions of linguistic phenomena (not falling back on the descriptive language of school grammar, which would be familiar to readers but which I believe to be fucked up beyond repair). So there will be a lot of technical talk here; please try to play along, but I don’t think there’s any way to do this right without re-thinking everything from the ground up.)

This is about a perfectly common expression — Who am I kidding? — that went past me in a flash on Facebook this morning but caused me (as a student of GUS — grammar, usage, and style / register) to reflect on the pronoun case in it. On the interrogative human pronoun, appearing here in what I’ll call its Form 1, who, rather than its Form 2, whom.

The pronoun in this expression is the direct object of the verb in the expression, KID, appearing in sentence-initial position (appearing “fronted”) in the WH-question construction of English. There’s nothing at all remarkable about this: in general, both forms of this pronoun are available as syntactic objects (of verbs or prepositions) in the language, differing only in their style / register (very roughly, formal whom vs informal who), with the special case of an object pronoun actually in combination with its governing preposition, which is  obligatorily in Form 2:

Who / Whom did you speak to? BUT *To who / ✓to whom did you speak?

So there’s nothing remarkable about Who am I kidding? It’s just informal.

What’s remarkable is the unacceptability of Whom am I kidding? The stylistic discord between the formality of object whom and the informality of the idiom WH-Pro am I kidding? is unresolvable. To put it another way, the choice of the Form 1 pronoun here is part of the idiom. Just like the choice of the PRP form of the verb KID, conveying progressive aspect: Who do I kid? lacks the idiomatic meaning.

Background: the idiom (and a closely related one), from The Free Dictionary by Farlex (edited by AZ for form):

Who am I kidding?: an expression of self-doubt. Oh, who am I kidding, running for mayor — I’ll never win. | Taking art classes at my age — who am I kidding?

Who is (someone) kidding?: Would anyone really believe anything so ridiculous or obviously untrue? A: “I’m going to be super rich and run my own company once I’m on my own!” B: “Who are you kidding, Tom? You’re so lazy that you’re barely even going to graduate high school.” | He shows up at these public events with teary eyes, but who is he kidding?

Note: the present-tense verb form is not part of the idiom; both idioms are fine in the past tense: Who was I kidding? Who was he kidding?

(Yes, the idioms are conventionalized rhetorical questions.)

A parallel. Involving the choice of what I’ve called the shapes of forms rather than the choice of forms. From my 11/21/17 posting “??That is aliens for you”, in a section about Auxiliary Reduction (AuxRed) in English (in, for example, who’s versus unreduced who is):

certain words — “little” grammatical words — are especially accommodating hosts for AuxRed: expletive it, expletive there, demonstrative that, interrogative what, who, where, and how, personal pronouns I, you, it, she, he, we, they, complementizer and relativizer that. With these, unreduced auxiliaries are likely to convey either notable formality or emphasis.

As a result, an informal-style idiom that has one of these accommodating hosts followed by the very easily reducible auxiliary is is very likely to be frozen in its AuxRed version: the formality of the unreduced auxiliary would conflict fatally with the informal style of the idiom as a whole. So we get “obligatory AuxRed” idioms like these two:

How’s the boy? ‘How are you?’ (a greeting from a man to a male familiar)

What’s up? ‘What is the matter?’ or ‘What is happening?

“And …:

That’s NP for you ‘That’s characteristic of NP’, ‘That’s the way NP is/are’

So: That’s aliens for you ‘That’s the way aliens are’, but ??That is aliens for you.

That is, in these cases the choice of the reduced shape is (again) part of the idiom.

2 Responses to “Who am I kidding?”

  1. julianne taaffe Says:

    Arnold, in addition to “stylistic discord,” does the difference in the sound of the phrase with whom vs who create another discord? For me, Whomamikiddn changes the prosody of whomikidn, not just with an extra syllable but with the repeated sound and different blending pattern. I notice I even seem to change stress automatically in my default pronunciation of the phrase from “who” (WHOmikiddn) to “I” (whomamℹ️kiddn). Or am I just more accustomed to the who version as a single chunk of language with my specific blending and intonation patterns?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Well, you certainly *are* “accustomed to the who version as a single chunk of language”, but other things can be going on at the same time. I did reflect on the heaviness and aesthetic ugliness of whom am. But then it occurred to be that if you were inclined to be a whom user — I am not; my personal style in both speech and writing has who *everywhere*, except when I’m obliged to use a Prep + WH-Pro combination — you would be willing to use things like I don’t know whom Tim saw without blinking an eye.

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