In Garner's Modern American Usage, Garner provides the following quote from a newspaper article:

“There are a number of people who might have wanted to kill Robert [...], but the intervening two decades have failed to reveal whom [read who].”

and follows it with this analysis:

Although whom might seem to be the object of reveal, in fact the relative pronoun is the subject of an implied verb--failed to reveal who [might have wanted to kill Robert].

Why exactly can't whom be used here, similarly to any personal pronoun, as in ...reveal them / him or her (or them) ?

Secondly, could a nominative personal pronoun be used with a similar elliptical reasoning? E.g., ...reveal they [who might have wanted to kill Robert]

  • Should you have put the second paragraph inside the quotation marks? If not, did you write it? Because if you did or didn't, that's the answer. "failed to reveal whom killed him" would be wrong. The only implied phrase has to be: failed to reveal [who might have killed him]. This is not: We revealed who the culprits were. We revealed them. versus Whom did you reveal? I revealed them. Whom did you speak to? or Whom did you see? The saw the man who did it. Not: I saw whom did it.
    – Lambie
    Jul 11, 2021 at 16:54
  • In your example, it would be the intervening two decades have failed to reveal they might have wanted to kill Robert. The focus wouldn't be on who, but on what they wanted to do. That contradicts the first part, which says some people might have wanted to kill Robert.
    – apaderno
    Jul 11, 2021 at 21:39

1 Answer 1


(For simplicity, I'm interpreting the intention of "who might have wanted to kill Robert" to mean Robert's killer, but this choice doesn't affect the analysis.)

In "...decades have failed to reveal [the killer]", "the killer" is the direct object of the transitive verb "reveal". Anything that replaces "the killer" will also be a direct object, so it makes sense naively that "whom" would be correct since it too comes after "reveal".

In "...decades have failed to reveal [who might have wanted to kill Robert]", the phrase in brackets is a noun phrase and the entire direct object. "Who" is clearly the subject of the noun clause, so in this sentence, "who" is correct.

Now, in the original sentence, if "whom" was meant only as a pronoun to replace "the killer", then "them" or "him or her" would have been good choices, but not "who". The original analysis is correct, and "who" is the right choice, though, for what it's worth, many native speakers make this mistake, and few would notice it.

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