Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Another "Grammatically Speaking", another error

In this month's column Leo Schmitt takes up a question about relative pronouns, who or whom.

And gets the answer wrong.

The question:
In the following sentence: Harold prefers contestants _____ he can sense are facing him.
Which would be the preferred relative pronoun?
Schmitt makes a reasoned argument for whom as a possibility, but because he builds his argument using a different sentence, his conclusion doesn't apply to the original.
Traditionally, who is used to mark a relative pronoun that served as the subject of the adjective clause and whom was used to mark a relative pronoun that was an object. Thus, we have “That is the man who gave the argument to the English and French to tell President King,” where “the man” is the one giving the argument. We also have “That is the man whom I saw coming out of room B,” where “I” am seeing “him.” In this respect, we could equate who with he and whom with him... so we could complete your sentence as “Harold prefers contestants whom he can sense are facing him,”
The sentence used in the explanation, That is the man whom I saw coming out of room B, has the embedded clause I saw him coming out of room B. This would have been analogous if the original question had asked about Harold prefers contestants _____ he can sense (them) facing him. Unfortunately, the original sentence was Harold prefers contestants _____ he can sense (they) are facing him. In other words, whom is not a possible answer [update, March 4: I don't mean to claim that it is actually "wrong" to use whom here, just that following Schmitt's logic, the answer should be who. See Arnold Zwicky's lengthy Language Log discussion, section 9.2 in particular.]

And so it goes.


Anonymous said...

Would it be correct to say, "Harold prefers contestants he can sense are facing him"? Normally it's object pronouns that can be left out. It sounds right, but maybe that's because it is so close to "Harold prefers contestants he can sense facing him."

Brett said...

I believe it would.

Q Higuchi said...

It is painfully clear that the ‘Grammatically Speaking’ column in question is a totally confused piece - but the possible root cause of the confusion does interest me.

If we take - if just for now - the view that the complement of see (in the example cited) is a clause, then the confusion is easy to see:

(1) Harold prefers contestants _ [he can sense [ _ are facing him]]
(2) That is the man _ I saw [ _ coming out of room B]

Of course we know that the two are not the same. I am simply saying that there is something that makes them look similar, thereby somehow making us want to use whom with (1).

One way to wake up from this illusion is to sharply separate he can sense from the rest:

(3) Harold prefers contestants who, as he can sense, are facing him

You hardly want to have whom there.

All this is not new; I am simply following Jespersen’s observations. At the end of The Philosophy of Grammar, he devotes three pages (in small font, too) of ‘Appendix’ to this very issue. You can see that he was as intrigued as we are.

Zwicky’s approach (as shown in his Language Log entry Brett points to) strikes me as very reasonable, objective and English-centric - true to American structuralist tradition. Which is fine, but I might have wanted a little more general perspective.

All this aside, why the author of ‘Grammatically Speaking’ didn’t bother opening a copy of Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, is beyond me. Or maybe writing stupid columns is their elaborate sales stunt?