Another SOTA?

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Jun 9 01:46:05 UTC 2006

On Jun 8, 2006, at 4:44 PM, sagehen wrote:

>> "Who I am today is _whom_ I've always wanted to be."
>> -Wilson Gray
>> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~
>  Is  the thought or the expression the candidate for SOTAcy?
> The "whom" could be defended under the  Subject of an Infinitive is
> in the
> Accusative case,  which sometimes does & sometimes apparently
> doesn't apply
> in English grammar.  We had some discussion of this  years
> ago....maybe '99
> or 2000.
> I wanted her to become an astrophysicist.  [1]
> I've always wanted me to become who I am today. [2]
> Can't say much for the felicity of either of these ways of saying
> this!

let's step back a bit here.  the original example is not parallel to
1 and 2 above.  if the predicative in the sentence had been
   who(m) I've always wanted me to be [3]
then we could, if we were so inclined, invoke the relevant rule of
latin, which is that a predicate nominal agrees in case with its
(notional) subject, which in this case is the accusative "me".  that
predicts "whom" for the fronted "who(m)".  (if you're unhappy with
this, hang on.  i'll get to it in a little while.)

but it's not 3 that's at issue.  instead it's
   who(m) I've always wanted to be [4]
in which the (notional) subject for the predicate nominal is also the
subject of "(have) wanted", i.e. the nominative "I".  that predicts
"who" for the fronted "who(m)".

now there are two problems.  the first is that "who(m)" frequently
doesn't work the same way as the other pronouns.  the second is that
the other pronouns don't follow the latin rule in this situation.  to
see the problem, build up from a simple finite example, like
   [I've always wanted to be Peter, and now] I *am* Peter.
the latin rule predicts nominative case for a pronoun in the place of
"Peter".  but this is godawful:
    *[I've always wanted to be Peter, and now] I *am* he.
it's got to be:
    [I've always wanted to be Peter, and now] I *am* him.

    [Q: Who are you today?]  A: [pointing to Peter] I am Peter/him/
*he today.

this is one of several situations where case choice (in english) is
pragmatically driven.  the relevant factor in this particular
situation is that some discourse referent (in this case, the person
Peter) is being conceptualized from two different viewpoints --
effectively, being split in two.  when this happens, predicate
nominals refer to something different from what their subject refers
to, they don't share case with those subjects, and so they default to
accusative.  a different but related effect appears when you point to
(the image of) yourself in a group photograph.  even if you're a
relentless "It is I" speaker, you can't say "That is I in the back
row"; it has to be "That is me in the back row".

in any case, the pragmatic effect carries over to "want" + marked
infinitive cases:
   I admire Peter enormously, so I've always wanted to be Peter/him/*he.

all this would seem to predict "whom" in 4.  but wait...  "who(m)"
really does work differently from the other pronouns (the first
problem i mentioned above).  as far as i know, "who(m)" doesn't show
any case-agreement effects for anyone, only determination of case by
syntactic function and position (with different speakers having
somewhat different schemes of determination). things like 3 with
"whom" are, i think, out for everybody, as is
   *Whom do you want me to be today?
(despite the goodness of "You want me to be him today")

that is, predicative "who(m)" is always "who", period.

it is, in fact, more than a little misleading to call "who"
nominative and "whom" accusative, using the same terminology as for
the other pronouns.  maybe something like "plain form" and "m form".

arnold (zwicky at

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list