What, Whom—What?

Conjure up this scene in your mind for a moment: You’re attending a public meeting of some sort, and after a long and tedious presentation, someone says, I just don’t understand what, or whom, will be helped by this new policy? I read a sentence like that the other day, and because it was written by a serious writer on a serious subject, I had to stop to consider the grammar and structure closely. Sorting out this sentence may help us understand some important basics.

Let’s begin with the big picture: we see one interrogative sentence of two clauses. The first clause, I just don’t understand, contains a transitive verb (understand), and that transitive verb is out looking for a direct object, something which the subject, I, just doesn’t understand. Now direct objects can present themselves in the form of a word, phrase, or clause, and it’s right here that the writer went wrong, I think. What the subject I does not understand is the entire clause what, or whom, will be helped by this new policy; it’s that whole thought, not any one single word in it, that is puzzling to the subject. We can see the same construction in a sentence like he sees what’s going on. The verb see is also transitive, and what the subject he is seeing (that is, realizing) is the idea of what is going on—that complete thought, which is expressed, as all thoughts are, in a clause.

So if we look now more closely at this object clause, we can start by remembering that a clause is composed of a subject and verb. And we should also remember (though we might not want to) that the subject of a clause stands in the nominative case. English nouns and pronouns sometimes dress themselves up—take on different forms or spellings—in an attempt (ironically) to make it easier to see their grammatical function at any given time. These different forms are called cases, and modern English has three of them: nominative, possessive, and objective. The nominative case shows the subject of a verb and the objective case shows the object of a transitive verb. If we return, then, to the clause we’re examining, the nominative form of the pronoun what is what, so our writer has gotten that correct: what will be helped. But the nominative case of the other subject, whom, is not whom; it’s who. So this object clause should correctly read: what, or who, will be helped by this new policy.

Now you might well be thinking that since this is an object clause, the pronouns in it should stand in the objective case. That, as I said, is what I think the writer thought when he wrote the objective whom, and you and he wouldn’t be alone in suspecting that. But a good and reliable and often overlooked rule of English grammar is that the case of a noun or pronoun is determined by its use in its own clause. Here, the verb of the clause is the passive will be helped, and a passive verb, just like an active one, needs a subject in the nominative case. So if that’s the case, what, then, is the object of the transitive verb understand? The entire clause what, or who, will be helped by this new policy, not any one particular pronoun in it. There’s no way in English to mark a clause as an object, though its position after the transitive verb understand may hint at its objective function, because objects regularly stand after their controlling verbs. But the sure way to work out the grammar is by a closer analysis like the one we’ve undertaken here.

And finally, what about that question mark? As we have observed, that punctuation identifies the sentence as an interrogative, but this sentence is not asking a question. It is stating a fact: I don’t understand something, and what I don’t understand is who or what will be helped by this policy. Question marks are used only in direct questions. This statement strongly implies a question, but it is not directly posing one.

There’s often much grammar in a short sentence, and it frequently takes more than a few words to explain how a sentence is (or should be) put together. It’s always important to remember, though, that getting things right is not a matter of grammatical etiquette. It’s a matter of seeing the thinking, both explicit and implicit, in what we’re hearing and reading. And that is always an important thing.


If you would like to read more about this and related topics, you will find these earlier posts of interest: Three Cases; Changing Voices; What Is an Object?; and The Case of Who and I.

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