I was perusing through past ACT English questions, and I came across the question:

"while pretending to be a person _____ in a different country and century"

The possible answers were:

  • A: whom had lived
  • B: who were to live
  • C: whom lived
  • D: who lived

The correct answer was D, but I am having trouble understanding why it is "D." My thought is that it would have to be whom, as the subject, person, was the object of the verb "be." Thus, "D" seemed impossible from my point of view. Could anyone share some insight into why my path of thinking was incorrect?

  • No, you were perusing past ACT English questions.....
    – Ash
    Jan 6, 2017 at 6:02
  • Please see the answers at "a patient who is" or "a patient whom is"? and, if you dare, the answers to the question that that question is said to duplicate—What's the rule for using "who" and "whom" correctly? If none of those answers clarify your "who/whom" question, we may not be able to explain it satisfactorily.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 6, 2017 at 7:13
  • There are two errors here. The verb "be" doesn't take an object; it takes a complement. In colloquial speech, the complement of "be" is normally in the accusative (as in "It's me") but in very formal speech the rule used to be that the complement should match the case of the subject ("It is I"). Since "whom" only occurs in formal speech, it's never correct to use "whom" as the complement of the verb "to be". (For example, you should say "Who is it?"; *"Whom is it" is wrong.)
    – sumelic
    Jan 6, 2017 at 23:13
  • 1
    The other error is that the case of "who(m)" is determined by its role in the embedded clause (the clause that comes after it, in this case), not by its role in the main clause. In this case, its role in the embedded clause is as the subject of the verb "lived".
    – sumelic
    Jan 6, 2017 at 23:14

1 Answer 1


Let's assume the whole sentence takes the following form:

Joe was a local resident while pretending to be a person who lived in a different time and place.

The word "who" in this sentence functions as a relative pronoun which begins a relative clause. The whole relative clause is: "who lived in a different time and place."

The word "person" is the antecedent of the relative clause (as in "person who lived...").

In the wikipedia article on such clauses, you find the following rule: "whom is used only when its antecedent is the object of the relative clause, but not when its antecedent is the subject of a sentence or clause..."

The question now is: How does the antecedent function in relationship to the relative clause? In this case "person" is the subject of the clause, not the object of the clause.

Consider now a relative clause which would use "whom:"

Joe was a hated resident while pretending to be a person whom we all loved.

In this case, person is the antecedent, but it functions as the object of the clause.

  • 2
    What does it even mean for the grammar of a relative clause to "match" its antecedent? Don't we know that who is the right pronoun in the clause "who lived in a different time and place" even when we don't know the antecedent for who?
    – deadrat
    Jan 6, 2017 at 7:05
  • Good question. I added another sentence to clarify what I meant.
    – Don Jewett
    Jan 6, 2017 at 16:23
  • 1
    This is a very confusing explanation, and I think it might be wrong (although I can't say since I don't really understand it). Jan 6, 2017 at 17:42
  • There's a simple test for this which doesn't take the antecedent into account at all. The important part is the relative clause: "who lived in a different time and place." We would say "he lived in a different time and place," not "him lived in a different time and place." Now, let's see how this test works with whom: For "whom I never met", you would say "I never met him", not "I never met he". The test: replace who(m) with he/him. You might have to reorder the clause to do this. If you would use he, use who. If you would use him, use whom. Jan 6, 2017 at 17:44
  • 1
    @DonJewett It's clear now, and clearly wrong. Consider Praise him, Goddess, who came to Troy from Aegina. The antecedent of who is him. The latter is in the objective case (as the direct object of praise), but the pronoun is in the subjective case (as the subject of the relative clause). I can do vice versa if you wish. This is a basic misunderstanding of the recursive nature of English grammar. In general, subordinate clauses have the same grammar as the clauses they're subordinate to. Please consider a revision of your answer.
    – deadrat
    Jan 6, 2017 at 18:38

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