Why we flounder at knowing "whom" we are
Recently I was asked which of the following sentences were grammatically correct:
1) "I'm using products from Company X, who I'm partnering with.”
2) "I'm using products from Company X, whom I'm partnering with."
To be clear, this was not a question about the originality of the partner company’s name. It was the relative pronoun. Simply put, whether to use who or whom.
Many of us will have stumbled over a sentence like this at some point. First, we add the m. Then we delete it. Then add it again. Wracking our brains for some rule we should be following.
And therein lies the problem.
We think of grammar as a set of rules. That the word of grammar is law. This is largely down to the way most of us have been taught. English Grammar is delivered by diktat. We are told what is correct. The why is inconsequential.
As children, we accept the word of our elders without question. Our mature brains look for logic. We flounder when it can’t be found. And long live confusion.
The pronoun context
Let’s step back a little.
The word “who” is an interrogative pronoun. So what is a pronoun?
A pronoun is simply a substitution for a proper noun. It helps us vary the language we use when speaking or writing. It minimises repetition. And that's it. Without pronouns, language could carry on wihout any difficulty.
(Though the current debate over self-selected personal pronouns is important for other reasons, it is, grammatically, a needless debate. We all have a personal pronoun we can use. It is our name.)
We created pronoun variants to simplify the rules we had already created for ourselves in grammars. One can’t help but think there are easier ways to make life easier. So each singular, plural and gender-specific pronoun has several variants. The most common are a subject form to be used when ‘it’ is 'doing the doing'. And an object form, when ‘the doing is being done’ to ‘it’.
Still with me? Even without this background, knowing whether to use the subject or object pronoun is instinctive for most of us. The interrogative ‘who’ and ‘whom’ follow the same rules. Instead of trying to remember something new, the easiest way to check which form to use is to refer to what you already know. Then choose the correct version from the corresponding family.
Taking our original query, 'I am partnering with Company X’ would become 'I am partnering with them'.
If it were a person as opposed to a company, you would be ‘partnering with Brian’. This would become ‘I am partnering with him’.
In these examples, it is unlikely you would be puzzling over whether it should be 'partnering with they or he'.
This tells you you’re using the subject form. Using them or him as your proxy, you can see that this corresponds to whom. Making the answer to the question:
"I'm using products from Company X, whom I'm partnering with."
Except that doesn't sound quite right either.
The dangling preposition
There’s another problem with the structure of the sentence. It’s one I call the dangling preposition.
To the grammar purist, leaving a preposition ‘dangling’ at the end of a sentence is a heinous crime. A preposition positions one thing relatively to another. As well as ‘with’, this could be ‘besides’, ‘above’, ‘in’ or ‘on’, for example. The expectation in sentence structure is for a preposition to physically sit between the two items it references.
Following this rule, we end up with
"I'm using products from Company X, with whom I'm partnering."
Grammatically, this is correct.
So why does it still feel clumsy?
A bad taste in the mouth
Let’s go back to the word ‘whom’.
Some words just feel awkward. When we form them, they feel unnatural in our mouths. They feel like a second language.
Try saying whom out loud. The elongated "OOO" feels old-fashioned and somewhat affected. It is like the start of a Noel Coward impression.
It feels unusual because it is unusual. We expect the ‘m’ at the end to flatten the ‘ooo’ into an ‘o’. Think of ‘tom’, ‘kingdom’, ‘intercom’ or any other words ending with -om. Here we are being forced to mispronounce the expected so that it sounds like womb or tomb.
This dislike for the uncommon is instinctive. It is illogical, driven by our emotions. But it drives our opinions. We feel something is wrong and have a natural desire to be right. When our brains look for the logical solution, it finds the cupboard is bare.
So even though the sentence is right, it feels wrong. And we don’t really know why.
The right answer
The right answer is...the question is wrong.
Rather than resolve it, we act in a typically British manner. We ignore it.
We restructure the sentence to
"I'm using products from my partners, Company X."
"I'm using products from Company X. They're my partners in this."
Grammar isn’t always about finding the right answer. It’s about being comfortable with what we are saying.
Grammar isn’t a set of rules. It is merely a guide. It changes over time to suit our own purposes.
When it comes to knowing how best to use grammar, we must always remember that we are the dog, not the tail. And by removing the problem, the problem doesn't exist.
And we can be sure that grammar will eventaully catch up with us. It alwasys does.