LINGUIST List 10.1049

Thu Jul 8 1999

Disc: Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Ed Finegan, Re: Corpora: Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who
  2. Robert L. Trammell, Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who
  3. William J. Crawford, Corpora: Query/Disc: Prep+relative who

Message 1: Re: Corpora: Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who

Date: Wed, 07 Jul 1999 13:30:33 -0700
From: Ed Finegan <>
Subject: Re: Corpora: Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who

I missed Carsten Breul's original posting but infer from the replies of
Finch, Fidelholtz, and Slobin that he inquired about two things: the
grammaticality of eight examples of Prep+relative _who_ from the British
National Corpus and the reliability of corpus data for infrequent

The replies suggest that _whom_ is dead or dying in English, and it does
seem doomed. But it is far from dead. As anyone can determine by
searching the online BNC, Prep+relative _whom_ remains very much alive.
Granted its use in conversation and certain other registers of speech is
perhaps negligible as compared with some other registers. But I would
not want to say that the structure is no longer part of English anymore
than I'd want to rule lexical items out simply because their use is
limited principally to certain registers. If editors and some writers
prefer to use _whom_, that'd be no reason to lump them with 'pseudo
grammarians' (as Jim Fidelholtz may be implying he would) anymore than a
careful writer who searches for a more suitable word than the one that
jumps first to mind would be a pseudo lexicographer. 

As to the transcription and editing of corpus texts, especially spoken
ones, achieving high degrees of accuracy isn't easy or cheap. Whether
all Breul's examples are accurately transcribed is tough to say,
although it may be noteworthy that he identifies an inaccuracy of
transcription in his example (2). Still, most of the examples are
probably transcribed accurately. But with so few examples, caution is
especially important.

That leaves the question of which registers the examples represent. BNC
online produces hundreds or even thousands of examples of Prep+relative
_whom_ , leaving Breul's handful of examples possibly marginal, whatever
their source. 

Breul's citations come mostly from informal written registers such as
'church magazines and leaflets' (his example (1)) although at least one
is a book published by Routledge and another a magazine cited as
"Harpers & Queen. London: The National Magazine Company Ltd, 1999, pp.
??. 3864 s-units, 70773 words." (Note that even this citation may
contain an inaccuracy, with its date of 1999.) 

At least certain aspects of language development seem to originate in
one or more registers and later get move into use in others. Language
diminution and language death can occur by reversing the process, that
is, with features diminishing in one register after another. Lexical
items are obvious examples of features that can be limited in registral
distribution, and some features of grammar seem likewise limited. What
isn't clear, although we probably all tend to side with Sapir on this,
is whether Prep+relative _whom_ will fade from use in all registers as
definitively as we sometimes seem to claim. And it isn't clear either to
what extent _whom_ was ever used in English conversation.

Ed Finegan
University of Southern California
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Message 2: Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who

Date: Thu, 08 Jul 1999 12:42:51 -0400
From: Robert L. Trammell <>
Subject: Query/Discussion: Prep+relative who

Dear Listers,

As a native speaker of American English in his fifties, my answer to Pieter
de Hahn's question:

I still teach my (Dutch-speaking) students to use WHOM rather than WHO
>when it is immediately preceded by a preposition, irrespective of
>whether this occurs in a relative clause or in an interrogative
>sentence (To whom were you talking just now?), but would you (and
>other native speakers) say that perhaps I'd better not pay any
>attention to it? Or should I teach them to avoid the construction with
>the initial preposition as much as possible anyway? Are native
>speakers beginning to regard this as an awkward or perhaps even
>unnatural construction?
> Dr Pieter de Haan

would be to continue to teach it. I still use those constructions,
although I am quite conscious of it when I do (likewise with "shall/will"
distinctions I learned in grammar school, but I use them less). However, I
do not have any idea whether most of my interlocutors are doing as I do
with rare exception. Apparently, it does not jar me to hear "who" instead
of "whom" in these constructions with a preposition. On the other had,
when I see them in writing, they do stand out. So I would say this is
still a part of semi-formal to formal educated English in America.


Bob Trammell
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Message 3: Corpora: Query/Disc: Prep+relative who

Date: Thu, 8 Jul 1999 14:22:15 -0500
From: William J. Crawford <>
Subject: Corpora: Query/Disc: Prep+relative who

This discussion leaves me wondering why "who" and the stranded preposition
(who...prep) is all right but prep + who is not. Does this mean that prep
+ whom is preferred to whom...prep as well?

What seems to be happening with "prep whom" is a conflation of style (and
prescriptive grammatical correctness) concerning the placement of the
preposition (preposed is considered more formal) and the perception that
whom is a more formal variant of who. The two go together because both
forms are used for the same reason, formal style.

The "prep who" construction is like a mixture of formal (prepose the
preposition) and an informal (use who instead of whom) style.

William J. Crawford
U.W. Department of English
5116 Helen C. White Hall
600 N. Park St.
Madison, Wisconsin 53706
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