If all these excuses are not enough, then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was.

This sentence is a part of the dedication of The Little Prince.

As I know, relative pronoun 'whom' can only be used as an object. But in this case 'whom' is used as a complement.

I don't know why 'whom' is used in the sentence instead of 'who' or 'that'.

Please, help me.


If all these excuses are not enough, then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was.

If we look at the corresponding gap in the relative clause:

  • I want to dedicate this book to the child(i) [ whom(i) this grown-up once was __(i) ].

we'll see that the gap "__(i)" is linked to the relative pronoun "whom", which is then linked to the antecedent "child".

Note that the relative clause (which is within the brackets and is in italics) is modifying the noun "child".

And so, the relative clause could have the interpretation of:

  • this grown-up once was the child

The reason why the relative pronoun can be in accusative case (e.g. "whom") is because the gap itself could correspond to an accusative pronoun, such as "her". For example:

  • this grown-up once was her

And so, the use of the relative pronoun "whom" is possible here in the original example sentence.

ASIDE: Notice that in the original example, the relative pronoun "whom" is not the subject of the relative clause (the subject of the relative clause is "this grown-up"). And so, usually, that word "whom" could possibly be "who" or "that" or nothing at all--it is up to the writer as to which word or nothing that they wish to use as the relative word/pronoun in the original sentence.

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  • 2
    I understand. Thank you very much!! It helped a lot. – littleprince Oct 31 '14 at 5:01
  • I think it might it be helpful to add, that in fact the'rule' stiplulates that whom can be used whenever the wh- word isn't the subject, rather than when it fullfils some specific function, perhaps? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 31 '14 at 14:21
  • @F.E. As you've said , the relative clause of the sentence 'This grown-up once was the child' is 'The child whom this grown-up once was'. so My question is, in the sentence 'This book is a dictionary' ,if we use 'dictionary' as the antecedent, What is the correct relative clause? 1.The dictionary which a book is. or 2.The dictionary which is a book. – Dinusha Nov 1 '14 at 20:37
  • @Dinusha The context and what the writer wants to say in that sentence would be important, and so, it would probably be better if you posed your question in a separate thread so people could give you a full answer. – F.E. Nov 1 '14 at 23:51

Strange. In A Comprehensive Grammar by Quirk et al., Topic 17.25, "Relative pronoun as complement", says that

When the relative pronoun functions as nonprepositional complement in the relative clause, the choice is limited to which for both personal and nonpersonal antecedents, in both restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses:
1. He is a teetotaller, which I am not.
2. This is a powerful car, which my last car was not.

But somehow your sentence seems okay to me. Let's wait what others will add.
Let's try to remodel Quirk's sentence 1 into a sentence with a restrictive relative clause:

This book is dedicated to the teetotaller which I once was. (The sentence look unnatural to me)
This book is dedicated to the teetotaller whom I once was. (This sentence looks more natural)

Seems like for restrictive relative clauses it could be okay to use whom as subject complement.

I've found a similar structure at Google Books:

At the center of the book, thirtieth in a total of sixty texts, stands the child whom the author himself once was, under the title "Enlargements. (Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography)

And another one:

The child whom Fibich once was did not evolve into the adult Fibich, but was traumatically erased by the terrors of separation and refugee life. ("Latecomers")

The issue was also discussed at a site called "The Grammar Exchange", in the topic "Relative pronoun in complement use".

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  • thanks for your adding information. I think it might be only used in Old English or literature . Let's wait other's comments. – littleprince Oct 31 '14 at 4:09
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    Very interesting observation. I think the reason for this is that whom implies the same indexical identity as it's antecedent. Compare He though I was a teetotaller whom I'm not this seems to imply that he thought I was a specific teetotaller, he mistook me for a different teetotaller. The example with which, which merely represents a type of teetotaller, not a specific one. This also explains why the OP's example works - the young child actually is the very same person as the grown up used to be! ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 31 '14 at 14:24

Native speaker here. I think this is a hypercorrection, where they keep in mind a common mistake and try to correct for it, but end up making the correction in situations where it's not appropriate. In the relative clause, "whom" is the predicate nominative, not the object, so you should actually use "who".

The sentence sounds stuffy, like someone trying to make themselves look smarter than they are. It's better just to use "who", or even better, omit the pronoun:

If all these excuses are not enough, then I want to dedicate this book to the child this grown-up once was.

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