This question arose when I wrote this sentence -

John was crying for who/whom he lost.

Now while writing I got confused whether to use "whom" or "who". I know there is no problem if we use "whom" here. But I was curious to know if "who" is also possible or not.

After giving some thought I came to this conclusion that "who" is also right. I am writing my thought below behind coming to this decision. You have to answer whether my decision and the thought process behind coming to this decision is both right.

My thought process -

John was crying for [who/whom he lost]

Now as I know "whom" is already right option, I will consider only "who" here.

John was crying for [who he lost]

The portion who he lost is a dependent clause. And the "who" from this dependent clause has nothing to do with the "for" that comes before this clause, so there is no chance to read [for who]. Am I right?

N.B - I have asked this question, though a different way in ELL forum, but as I have not got enough satisfied answer or any answer that deals with the grammar that I seek, I decided to ask this question here again.

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    There's a strong tendence in modern English to abandon using 'whom' whatsoever, so you can always use only 'who' and it will always be correct. – Yellow Sky Sep 11 '14 at 13:01
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    I think this might be better suited to EL&L because it asks specifically about English grammar and not really about the more generic linguistic process behind it. Incidentally, as a native Canadian English speaker, "he wept for whom he lost" is very very strange to me since "whom he lost" or "him he lost" seem like ungrammatical sentences. – acattle Sep 11 '14 at 13:36
  • @acattle. The question is excellent. It is addressing a confusing aspect of syntax, i.e. free relative clauses. – Tim Osborne Sep 11 '14 at 13:51
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    It would be off-topic in EL&U, or rather closed immediately as a duplicate, We get who/whom questions every day there. This is not a confusing point of grammar, except for those who do not understand English grammar, which includes of course almost everyone educated in Anglophone school systems. – jlawler Sep 11 '14 at 14:39
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    Questions of this kind have been answered several times over at EL&U. If you look through those questions, you'll find an answer to your question without even asking it. Additionally, if you fail to find satisfactory answers on ELL, EL&U should be your fall-back site. Questions about grammaticality judgement in specific languages are considered off-topic here. – prash Sep 11 '14 at 15:56

The reasoning in the question is both right and wrong. First, however, here is a guideline for using who and whom:

Always use who except when who immediately follows a preposition. In such a case, whom sounds better. The following variants are therefore most acceptable:

 a. the one who he is waiting for

 b. the one for whom he is waiting

The following variants are stilted or odd:

 c. ?the one whom he is waiting for

 d. ?the one for who he is waiting

Moving on to your reasoning, it is, as stated, both right and wrong. It is right insofar as the pronoun who/whom belongs to the subordinate clause who/whom he lost, but it is wrong insofar as it also belongs to the matrix clause; it is the object of the preposition for.

The example involves what is known as a free relative clause. The root of a free relative clause is the pronoun. This pronoun has a dual function. It is both part of the matrix clause as well as part of the subordinate clause. Here are some more examples of free relative clauses:

(1) I like WHAT he said.

(2) WHAT she did was stupid.

(3) They will support WHOEVER she chooses.

(4) She depends on WHATEVER he does. 

The words in caps are the relative pronouns. These pronouns serve in both of the clauses, the matrix clause and a subordinate clause. Note that the pronouns of free relative clauses are often marked with -ever. In this regard, the example sentence produced sounds better to me if -ever is added:

 John is crying for whoever/whomever he lost. 

However, even this sentence does not sound so good to me. I prefer the following formulation:

 John is crying for the one he lost, whoever that was.

This formulation avoids the problem concerning the correct form, who vs. whom. The grammar of English has many gray zones, just as the grammar of any language does. Being a good writer involves knowing how to use alternative formulations to avoid the gray areas, and knowing how to deliberately access the gray areas to create a certain effect.

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  • So from your answer I conclude that using "who" will be wrong here as the dependent clause is the object of the preposition "for". – Man_From_India Sep 11 '14 at 15:00
  • Yes, "whomever" is a bit better, but only a bit. As the object of "for", "whomever" is better, but as the object in the relative clause, "whoever" would be better. You've produced an example that resides in a gray zone. In such cases, neither option is very good. Seek an alternative fomulation that avoids the gray matter. – Tim Osborne Sep 11 '14 at 15:07
  • So it's really hard or impossible (to say it better) to say which one is right and which one is wrong. Alternative formulation is available but I was more interested to learn this confusing aspect. Thank you very much for such a nice explanation. Is there any such confusing sentences that you can come up with? If you can please write them. Thank you a lot once again. – Man_From_India Sep 11 '14 at 15:12
  • Yes, acceptability resides on a scale. There are shades of grammatical acceptability. As one studies grammar and linguistics more, one comes to see this clearly. There are principles of syntax that often compete, resulting in gray zones. The problem with much of prescriptive grammar taught in schools is that it wants to make all this into a black-and-white issue. It's often not black-and-white, but rather it involves shades of gray. Here's another, unrelated example of the gray matter: "He likes her, and she/her him". Both "she" and "her" are possible due to competing principles. – Tim Osborne Sep 11 '14 at 15:21
  • The whole prepositional phrase is an adverbial to the intransitive construction. If you omit "for whom he lost", the sentence would still be grammatical and this demonstrates the boundary between "John was crying" and "for whom he lost". Therefore, I would say that the answer is "whom" because the pronoun seems to be the object of the preposition "for". – Morphosyntax Sep 11 '14 at 20:03

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