Who/whom and persuade/ask

A couple of days ago, Catherine passed on my explanation for why “whom” sounds wrong in this sentence:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.

In a nutshell, the object of “say” is an entire sentence (“_______ were involved in the plot.”), and the subject of this sentence is “who.” We say “the associates who were involved in the plot”; not “the associates whom were involved in the plot.”

But what if the F.B.I. sentence had read:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors persuaded to cooperate in the investigation.

This sentence may sound awkward, but the problem isn’t the choice of “whom” over “who.”

The difference between the two F.B.I. sentences boils down to the difference between verbs like “say,” which takes a sentence as its object, and verbs like “persuade,” which has two objects: a noun phrase and a sentence.

This makes sense if you think about the meaning of “say” vs. the meaning of “persuade.” We say sentence-like things, but we persuade people to enact sentence-like things.

We also shout or whisper or think sentence-like things, while asking, ordering, or convincing people to enact sentence-like things. These people are both the objects of our persuading/convincing/asking/ordering, and the subjects of whatever sentence-like thing we want them to do.

In terms of sentence grammar, it’s the people’s status as objects that wins out. The F.B.I persuaded them to cooperate, not they to cooperate.

Complicating matters, of course, is that much-lamented trend: “who” is displacing “whom.” So it sounds fine to say:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, who prosecutors persuaded to cooperate in the investigation.

Returning to “persuade them to do X” vs. “persuade they to do X,” why does being an object win out, grammatically, over being a subject? As we’ve noted earlier, grammar sometimes gets arbitrary. Indeed it often gets even more arbitrary than this.

If you look carefully at what I’ve just written, for example, you’ll see a sentence that calls into question my entire explanation. The sentence is “These people are … the subjects of whatever sentence-like things we want them to do. The problem, in boldface, is the verb “want.”

To see this more clearly, let’s look at one more “F.B.I. sentence”:

The F.B.I. wants them to cooperate in the investigation.

Isn’t the logical object of “wants” here the associates’ cooperation in the investigation? The F.B.I. doesn’t want them; it wants their cooperation. Yet grammar, beating out logic, insists that they are the object of “want.” We don’t say “The F.B.I. want they to cooperate in the investigation.”

Nor do I write “people are the subjects of whatever sentence-like things we want they to do.” Except when pointing this out as an exception.

Listening to my grammar brain

Speaking of who/whom, here’s a pronoun case chart from cengage.

I assume it’s from the textbook Evergreen: A Guide to Writing by Susan Fawcett.

Personal narrative: I saw a pronoun case chart for the first time in my life when I started teaching freshman composition. Up to that moment, I had no idea what the grammatical distinction was between who and whom; I certainly had no clue what the word “case” might mean, or what part of grammar it applied to.

The chart was a revelation.

Very satisfying!

Interestingly, I discovered that in fact I did know the distinction unconsciously, deep down in my basal ganglia, where grammar resides. I had picked it up in spite of the fact that whom has been dead for a century.

My basal ganglia knew the dead-for-a-century business, too.

Grammar brain knows.

The basal ganglia are much smarter than we give them credit for, but that is a subject for another day.

Who/whom and say/want

As promised, here is Katharine’s explanation of the who/whom issue in the F.B.I. sentence:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.
From: One by One, ISIS Social Media Experts Are Killed as Result of F.B.I. Program

“Whom” sounds wrong to me, and Katharine says it is wrong. The right word is “who.”


“Who” is the subject form Who is knocking at my door? “who” is the subject of the sentence
“Whom” is the object form To whom it may concern “whom” is the object of “to”

I was confused by the F.B.I. sentence because, to me, “whom” looked like the object of say (because “whom” refers to “two of Mr. Rahim’s associates”).

But if it was the object of “say,” why did it sound wrong?

It turns out that — and you need a linguist to explain this (at least, I do) — “whom” isn’t the object of say.

The object of “say” is the entire sentence “_______ were involved in the plot.”

“Say” takes a “sentential object“: it takes a sentence as an object.

Other verbs take a simple noun as their object.

I want toast.

“Say” is different.

I said I wanted toast.

In the F.B.I. sentence, “who” is right because “who” is the subject of the sentence “_____ were involved in the plot.”

If that’s confusing, think “they were involved in the plot” versus “them were involved in the plot”:

They were involved in the plot Them were involved in the plot
Who were involved in the plot Whom were involved in the plot

Another example:

I say he did it.

The object of “say” is “he did it.” Not “he.”

That’s why you don’t write:

I say him did it.

Nor do you write “The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.”


One of the things I loved about working with Katharine on the textbook is that she always knows the answer to grammar question — not just knows the answer, which I usually know intuitively, but can explain the answer.

This sentence stumped me:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.
From: One by One, ISIS Social Media Experts Are Killed as Result of F.B.I. Program

That “whom” sounded wrong.

Usually, when something sounds wrong to me, it is wrong. But then, when I read the sentence again, thinking about its grammar, I wasn’t sure.

Wasn’t that “whom” the direct object of “say“?

Whom” is the direct object form. Not “who.”

I’ll post Katharine’s explanation tomorrow. (Or make her do it!)

End focus, part 2

The West Bank, which we spent 2 days visiting earlier this month, is divided into Areas A, B, & C.

Area A’s are Palestinian.

Area C ‘s are Israeli.

Area B’s are half and half: Palestinian police, Israeli defense forces (as I recall).

Everything looks alike. At one point our guide told us he had no idea which area we were driving through; without signage, you can’t tell.

The only areas that did have signage were Area A’s, which greet visitors with a big red sign in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that says:

The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, is dangerous to your lives, & is forbidden by Israeli law

We passed a lot of these signs during our visit. Each time we did, I felt a disorienting combination of amusement and alarm. Alarm that we were entering an area that was dangerous to our lives;1 amusement that, apparently, in the eyes of the Palestinian Authority, breaking Israeli law would be a worse fate than possibly dying.

That’s sentence end-focus.

In English sentences, the most important information comes last. So, to me, the sign says that breaking Israeli law is worse than risking my life.

Perhaps sentences constructed differently in Arabic?

I’ve found conflicting answers. #footnote

1. I’m not an Israeli citizen, but we were traveling with three people who were.