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My version is the following: Whom was this book written by?
But I heard a few times that usage of 'whom' is very weird or obsolete in English, although all my teachers taught me to use it and most Internet sources recommend the mandatory usage of 'whom'. I never had an experience to have a living English conversation, so I know very little about live English (spoken language).
Would it be better to say in spoken English: Who was this book written by? or maybe By who was this book written?

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  • 1
    Whom is strictly correct. But I believe(though I'm not a native speaker) it sounds like a foreigner in the spoken register.
    – user178049
    Mar 21 '17 at 9:44
  • Note that in the passive voice, we would probably say, "By whom was this book written?" (i.e., "by who" is not correct.) But it's true, in spoken English, we just say, "Who was this book written by?" Mar 21 '17 at 9:59
  • It seems your question is more about the use of whom & who than about how to turn a sentence into the passive voice. Did you consult all the questions about whom already asked on ELL? The answers to this one: How can one differentiate between “who” and “whom”? might answer your own question.
    – None
    Mar 21 '17 at 10:02
  • Well, if 'whom' is dying out, I don't think I cannot use it. Many people say that 'I shall' is also dying out. But I have heard British people are very loyal to it and sometimes even use it themselves.
    – Alexander
    Mar 21 '17 at 10:11
  • I try to do my part to keep 'whom' alive in the American Southeast.
    – Davo
    Mar 21 '17 at 11:08
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Technically, in questions we can use either who or whom when it is interpreted as the object of a verb or preposition. However, it is quite unusual to use whom as an interrogative pronoun in modern English except in very formal writing. (It is is much more common to see whom as a pronoun in relative clauses)

The following questions are quite unusual:

  • Whom did you see?
  • Whom did you say you invited?

We are much more likely, even in formal situations, to say:

  • Who did you see?
  • Who did you say you invited?

However, there is one situation where it is actually ungrammatical to use interrogative who and where we must use interrogative whom. This is when the word whom is the Complement of a preposition at the beginning of the clause:

  • By who was the book written? (ungrammatical)
  • By whom was the book written?

The first example above is ungrammatical because the word who is the Complement of the preposition by. Because of this, we need to use the second example above, which uses whom.

However, we only have to use whom if the preposition is at the beginning of the question. If we don't put the preposition directly before the wh- word at the beginning of the clause but leave it at the end, then we do not have to use whom. We can use who instead:

  • Who was the book written by?
  • Whom was the book written by?

In the examples above, the preposition by occurs at the end of the question. We interpret the word who/m as the Complement of this preposition, but the preposition is not at the beginning of the clause. For this reason both of the examples above are perfectly grammatical. It is more natural in spoken English to put the preposition at the end of the question rather than at the beginning.

In modern English, the example with who is far more natural than the example with whom.

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  • "who" can be used as the complement of an immediately preceding preposition in a number of cases: "I was robbed." "By who?" and "You were robbed by WHO?!" both sound natural to me (here is an example I found of the second structure being used in a gloss in some linguistics text: books.google.com/…) "By who" only sounds wrong to me when it is fronted in the pied-piping construction. Same for other prepositions, e.g. "I should give the present to WHO?!"
    – sumelic
    Mar 21 '17 at 18:36
  • @sumelic Yes, you're right there. Was writing off part. Am on a phone right now. Will edit when get back. (Suddenly am getting deja vu. Did we have this conversation before?) Mar 21 '17 at 19:06
  • @Araucaria: I also got a bit of deja vu, so seems probable! If so, I think it was on one of the many ELU posts about this topic.
    – sumelic
    Mar 21 '17 at 19:13
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Whom was this book written by?

Your proposed sentence is grammatical. As you suggest, it will be perceived by many native speakers as formal, probably excessively formal for ordinary conversation.

By whom was this book written?

This is also grammatical, but sounds even more formal and unnatural. I would not recommend it. The structure used here is "pied-piping," moving a phrase that contains an interrogative or relative pronoun to the start of a clause, which is often used in formal sentences due to a belief that it is more elegant to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition (some people even believe incorrectly that it is ungrammatical to end a sentence with a preposition).

By who was this book written?

This sentence could maybe be heard from someone, but I would certainly recommend against using it. It doesn't sound natural to me and it also doesn't use "whom" in the formally prescribed way. Generally, whenever you use pied-piping, which is a formal structure, you should also use "whom" in the ways you have been taught it "should" be used. If you want to use a more colloquial style that avoids "whom," you should also avoid the pied-piping structure.

Who was this book written by?

This is a good choice in colloquial speech. As you know, some teachers prescribe "whom" in this context, but "who" is generally considered acceptable, almost always treated as acceptable, and will generally sound less pretentious. (I only say "almost always" because I'd guess you can find some native speakers who would say using "who" this way is not as good as using "whom" in a situation where people are expected to show their command of "good grammar," like a job interview.)

In this situation, there is another option that would be correct and natural in any register of speech, colloquial or formal. You can just say

Who wrote the book?

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  • The last option only in this case, because "Who" is the subject of the sentence, no need to use the passive voice.
    – Hector von
    Mar 21 '17 at 18:41

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