Learn English – Whom should I say is calling


Note, originally my question was "should I ask" instead of what I meant, which is "should I say". Sorry for the confusion.

If I do an internet search about:

Whom should/shall I say is calling.

I invariably get blogs and articles saying that this is incorrect, and probably a form of hypercorrection.

This question follows from a previous question based on an Oxford Living Dictionaries article about whom and who.

In the article it claims that in both:

  • ✗ He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom has ruined his life.
  • ✗ Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, whom just use labels to describe him.

the use of whom is wrong, and it should be who. This seems to be agreed to by the users that contributed to the previous question I linked.

However the Oxford Living Dictionaries also claims that the following two are incorrect:

  • ✗ He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom he claims has ruined his life.

  • ✗ Mr Reynolds is highly critical of journalists, whom he says just use labels to describe him.

However on these two examples the majority seemed to say that objection to using whom in the last two is an old prescriptivist objection, and to quote an answerer:

According to many respected grammarians, the article is incorrect …


  • He is the person whom won the race.(Wrong)
  • He is the person whom I say won the race.(Acceptable?)

In the second example whom appears to be both subject and object, however more particularly "whom" is the subject of "won the race", but the object of the whole clause seems "I say won the race". At least that's what I understood from the point.

If this is acceptable, then in the case of "Whom should I say is calling?" Doesn't the following apply:

  • Whom is calling?(Wrong)
  • Whom should I say is calling?(Acceptable?)

If we turn these questions into statements I think we get:

  • He is calling.
  • He is the person whom I should say is calling.
  • He is whom I should say is calling.

Is this analagous to the other cases, and therefore saying "Whom should I say is calling?" is not incorrect?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but every every single result I saw about "Whom should/shall I say is calling?" have all said that it's incorrect and that it should be "Who", mainly because the "Who" is doing the calling and therefore the subject.

Who/whom shall I say is calling?

He is calling.

Who shall I say is calling?

Correct: Whom did you speak to earlier?
Correct: A man, whom I
have never seen before, was asking about you.
Incorrect: Whom
should I say is calling?

On this usingenglish.com forum thread an English teacher calls it an instance of hypercorrection.

On this Quora question all the top answers say it should be "who".

In this sentence, "he" is the correct choice, so you would choose "who" for the question.
Quora question

I take it given all this information my instinct is wrong about this?

Best Answer

I don't think that there is a relevant difference between sentences like "He is demanding £5,000 from the elderly woman whom he claims has ruined his life" and "Whom should I say is calling?" If there is a relevant difference, it would probably be that "whom" is a relative pronoun in the first, and an interrogative pronoun in the second. Possibly, interrogative whom is less common than relative whom, but I haven't seen much literature that discusses the evidence for that idea in detail.

The word whom is fronted in both sentences. The 2012 Language Log post "Sometimes there's no unitary rule," by Geoff Pullum, refers to "a preposed relative or interrogative who" when discussing this topic.

However, JK2's answer points out that in Chapter 5 of the CaGEL (published in 2002) the use of whom in this context is described as being mostly restricted to relative clauses. I don't know whether Pullum's views have evolved since the publishing of the CaGEL, or whether the inclusion of interrogatives in the rules given in the 2012 blog post was an accidental oversight.

There is a 2004 blog post by Pullum ("I really don't care whom") that describes the general state of the who vs. whom distinction as confusing and says that whom "hardly occurs in interrogatives at all".

Whom would not be an "object" here

It's not correct to categorize whom as "the object of the whole clause", any more than he is the object in sentences like I know that he is calling. Rather, it is "not the subject" of the relative clause. Hopefully the distinction I'm making between "not the subject" and "object" is understandable, if nitpicking.

Whom is "incorrect" here from a prescriptivist perspective

The sources that you have seen are all taking the prescriptivist viewpoint. The prescriptivist rule isn't inherently invalid; the point that descriptivist linguists like Pullum are trying to make in documents like the linked blog post is that the pattern of usage that the prescriptivists condemn has a logic of its own, and it seems likely that many people who write things like "the person whom I say won the race" aren't just accidentally using "whom" where they say "who" (i.e. it's not just a typo or "production error"), and aren't just consciously choosing to write "whom" because they think it is more formal and they don't know where it should be used (that kind of thing is what linguists like Pullum would call a "hypercorrection"), but rather are following a rule that they have internalized to some degree that says to use "whom" in contexts like this. So it is "grammatical" for them in the sense that it is consistent with a rule that they plausibly have acquired as part of their own personal system of grammar.

From a descriptive viewpoint, things that are consistent with a speaker's grammar are not described as "mistakes" or "errors". "Acceptability" depends on the grammar of the listener/reader. The articles that you have seen use words like "mistake", "wrong", "incorrect", "error" in a different sense, to refer to things that aren't consistent with the rule that prescriptivists have historically preferred. For example, from a prescriptive viewpoint things like "ain't" or "haven't got no" are "incorrect". This is a common use of these words in popular discussions of grammar, but modern linguists tend to avoid using these words this way in scientific contexts.

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