I love the holiday episodes of Friends. At the beginning of season 4 episode 8 “The One with Chandler in a Box,” Phoebe proposes a Secret Santa exchange because she and Monica have started a new business and are low on money. Phoebe adds, “There’s the added mystery of who gets who.” Ross, the perpetual foot-in-mouth grammar Luddite, responds without thinking, “Who gets whom.” As his friends stare at him, he adds, “I don’t know why I do that.” I chuckle every time at Ross’ social ineptitude, but I also roll my eyes a bit at the prescriptivism.
While Ross is correct about the whom in who gets whom, Phoebe is also correct in saying who gets who. But how can both be correct?
First, you must understand the English pronoun system. A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a nominal form. For example:
- Our mother is a nurse. She works at a cancer center.
- David is a mechanic. He works at an auto shop.
- The students are watching whatever the substitute put on. It is a documentary.
The pronoun she takes the place of the noun phrase our mother. The pronoun he takes the place of the noun (phrase) David. The pronoun it takes the place of the noun clause whatever the substitute put on. The pronouns she, he, and it are personal pronouns. Personal pronouns are pronouns that refer to specific antecedents. Other personal pronouns in English include him, they, and them, among others.
Another type of pronoun is the interrogative pronoun. Interrogative pronouns are pronouns used to form questions or gain information about an unknown antecedent. Both who and whom are interrogative pronouns. For example:
- Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?
- Who did you call?
- Whom did you call?
The interrogative pronouns who and whom take the place of unknown nominal forms in the questions. The cookie thief and the recipient of the call are unknown.
Both personal pronouns and interrogative pronouns can be further subcategorized into subject pronouns and object pronouns. Subject pronouns prototypically function as subjects and subject complements. Object pronouns prototypically function as direct objects, indirect objects, object complements, and prepositional complements. The difference arose from the case system of Old English. Grammatical case refers to inflections that indicate grammatical function. Modern English largely lacks grammatical case and instead uses syntax (word order) to show function. In the dog chased a cat, the dog is the subject and a cat is the direct object because English is an SVO (subject-verb-object) language. Switching the word order into a cat chased the dog likewise changes the functions of the noun phrases. Now a cat is the subject and the dog is the direct object. In Old English, nominal forms (nouns, determiners, adjectives, pronouns) had different forms depending on the function. Word order was less rigid because case also indicated the function of a nominal form rather than word order alone.
In the Modern English pronoun system, case partially survives in the personal pronouns and interrogative pronouns. The pronouns I and me have the same antecedent (the speaker or writer). The difference is that I is a subject pronoun and me is an object pronoun. Other subject pronouns include he, they, and who. Corresponding object pronouns include him, them, and whom. In he called them, he is the subject doing the calling, both in syntax and form. The subject pronoun he goes before the verb and object. The direct object being called is them, again both in syntax and form. The object pronoun them follows the verb. Changing the syntax and forms also changes the meaning of the sentence. In they called him, they are doing the calling while he is being called.
While the Modern English pronoun system contains more pronouns than the ones thus far mentioned, I keep using he, him, they, and them for a reason. Like who, he and they are subject pronouns. Like whom, him and them are object pronouns. Notice the endings on whom, him, and them. The <m> in the object pronoun whom is related to the <m> in the object pronouns him and them. The <m> marked the dative form (indirect object) in Old English (and Old Norse): hwa ~ hwam, he ~ him, þeir ~ þeim. In Modern English, the subject pronouns he and they can replace who, and the object pronouns him and them can replace whom.
- He called them.
- They called him.
- Who called them?
- Who called him?
- He called whom?
- They called whom?
When Ross says, “Who gets whom,” he uses the object interrogative pronoun whom as the indirect object. His use of whom is absolutely correct. But Phoebe is also correct in saying, “Who gets who.” Why?
Language changes. Full stop. That Phoebe and Ross are not speaking Old English shows that language changes. In the Old English case system, nominal forms expressed four cases (nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive) although the accusative and dative forms were sometimes identical). In Modern English, the case system collapsed for nouns, determiners, and adjectives. Only the genitive somewhat survives as the possessive clitic (‘s). For pronouns, genitive forms developed into modern possessive pronouns like mine. The accusative and dative forms completely collapsed into a single object form. In the second person and neuter third person singular, the nominative, accusative, and dative all collapsed into a single form: you and it. The English case system has been dying for centuries.
And the English case system continues to die. In fact, I have previously written (somewhat jokingly, mostly seriously) that the English case system is dead. Although there are different forms for subject pronouns and object pronouns, English users use subject pronouns in object functions and object pronouns in subject functions. For example:
- Me and him went out last night.
- Keep this between you and I.
While me and him are object pronouns in form, both are functioning as subjects. Likewise, I is a subject pronoun in form but functioning as a prepositional complement. (And you is just you.) However, because Modern English is an analytic language that uses word order to convey relationships and meaning between words, the meaning of the sentences is clear. Word order trumps grammatical case.
The same is true for who and whom. English users frequently use who in both subject and object functions as Phoebe does when she says, “There’s the added mystery of who gets who.” Absolutely no one is confused about her meaning. No one thinks her sentence has two subjects and no direct object. She uses subject who as the direct object. And so do the majority Modern English speakers. When Ross tries to correct her with “who gets whom,” he is not wrong, just old-fashioned and quite a bit pedantic. Modern whom is going the way of the majority of the English case system: out of the language.
As Paul J. Hopper wrote in A Short Course in Grammar, the pronoun whom is vanishing in English. The word’s death is imminent. And who will mourn the death of whom? Few will.
Learn more about pronouns in A Form-Function Description of the Grammar of the Modern English Language: Book 1 (Level 7) available via Amazon.
- Kosur, Heather Marie (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 569 Pages – 11/18/2021 (Publication Date) – Independently published (Publisher)
Baugh, Albert C. & Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Harper, Douglas. Him. Online Etymological Dictionary. Online: https://www.etymonline.com/word/him. Accessed 26 Sep. 2022.
Harper, Douglas. Them. Online Etymological Dictionary. Online: https://www.etymonline.com/word/them. Accessed 26 Sep. 2022.
Harper, Douglas. Whom. Online Etymological Dictionary. Online: https://www.etymonline.com/word/whom. Accessed 26 Sep. 2022.
Hopper, Paul J. 1999. A short course in grammar. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.