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I talk to my friend about language. I tell her about "who" and "whom". I tried to explain to her that "whom" could be for objects--if you can ask a question or answer it with him/her. She asked me which would she use here:

Would you tell me the number of whom wrote this paper?

I did not know how to explain to her which one to use. Which would work here?

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Your friend asked a good question. I do not think that "who" or "whom" can ever be used properly to refer to anything non-human.

The meaning of the example sentence is unclear and certainly not idiomatic. The word "number" has slightly different meanings. In the absence of context, which of those meanings is intended must be clarified with additional verbiage. So one possible meaning is:

Would you tell me the phone number of the person who wrote this paper?

It makes sense to say that a person has a phone number, but, except for acute psychiatric cases, a person cannot be plural and thus cannot have an unknown number in the "counting" sense. With the addition of "phone," the sentence makes sense, but, to be grammatical, "who" is definitely the correct pronoun rather than "whom."

It is the role of the pronoun in the subordinate clause that determines the distinction between “who” and “whom.”

Would you tell me the name of the person who hit Jane

Would you tell me the name of the person whom Jane hit.

The two sentences above have entirely different meanings: in one, Jane was the person struck, requiring "whom," and in the other, Jane was the person doing the striking, requiring "who." It must be admitted, however, that except in fairly formal writing and in the speech of very careful speakers, this distinction in usage between "who" and "whom" is often ignored.

Possibly the intended meaning of the given sentence in the original post is

Would you tell me the number of people who wrote this paper?

If that was the intended meaning, "who" is the grammatically correct pronoun because it is again acting as the subject of the subordinate clause. But notice that " number" has now been clarified with "of people." People can be plural, and so the "counting" sense of number may be relevant.

I must agree with Kevin that, if this second meaning was intended, the addition "of people" still makes this sentence unidiomatic regardless of the choice between "who" and "whom." Kevin is correct that an idiomatic version, which does not involve the distinction between "who" and "whom," is

How many people wrote this paper?

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  • @EllieK You are correct. My original answer was atrocious. Maybe I was drunk when I wrote it. Thank you for pointing out just how bad it was. I have rewritten it. Apr 22 at 23:03
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Before I get into the who/whom question, the sentence itself has a small grammatical flaw. You really need one extra word to clarify what "the number of" is referring to, even though it is implied by the structure of your sentence, which is "people".

In regards to who/whom I would suggest that actually neither is correct and instead what you're looking for is "that". This is because you're actually referring back to "the number", which is a thing and not a person.

So putting those two things together it should really read:

Would you tell me the number of people that wrote this paper?

To my American ears that still sounds somewhat stilted because, and if you want an alternative that I think sounds more natural you could go with:

Would you tell me how many people wrote this paper?

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