Grammar Wednesday

Welcome back from break, Class! I hope you had as lovely a time as I did! I’ve missed you all, though, and am happy to be home again.

Today’s lesson covers the tricky topic of who/whom. This is something, I have to admit, which still gives me a little trouble, so I’ll explain the rules to you, then tell you the ‘trick’ I use to help me figure out which to use when. Please also understand that the more formal uses for which whom/whomever are generally pressed into service are steadily disappearing in favor of the less formal who/whoever; it’s one of those “language evolution” things again..

Who and whoever are subjective pronouns – which is just a fancy way of saying that they act as subjects in sentences:

Who left the door open?

Whoever wants dinner should hurry to the kitchen!

Whom and whomever are objective pronouns, which means that they are the object of the verb:

To whom do I address my complaint?

We will nominate whomever the committee suggests.

Instead of trying to figure out whether the word I’m looking for is the subject or the object, I tend to use this little trick; take out the “wh” word and replace it with a third person pronoun – for the sake of simplicity, let’s use “he.”

If you can replace the “wh” word with “he,” you want who or whoever. If you have to use “him,” though, you want to use whom or whomever (the “m” in him helps me remember the “m” in whom). Recognize that you may have to reword your sentence to figure this out, but that doesn’t really matter as long as you keep the original verb tenses. Let’s use one of each of the sentences above:

Who left the door open? HE left the door open. “Who” is correct.

We will nominate whomever the committee suggests.  WE will nominate HIM.  The committee suggests HIM.  “Whomever” is correct.

Now you try one:

The grandfather left his sizeable estate to whoever/whomever didn’t bring a lawyer to the reading of the will.

Do you know which to use?



Filed under Grammar

17 responses to “Grammar Wednesday

  1. Denever

    “Give a raffle ticket to whomever arrives before the performance begins.”

    Oh, Mrs. Chili, hang your head in shame! You are perpetuating one of those godawful hyper-corrections that are wrong wrong wrong! This one, and the incorrect use of the subjunctive (“I asked him if he were feeling ill”), are the two I find most irksome.

    Here’s the flaw in your analysis. Yes, of course, you give the ticket to “him,” not to “he.” But the construction you’ve chosen to illustrate your point contains a relative clause: “whoever arrives before the performance begins.”

    Thus, the test isn’t whether you say “give it to him” or “give to to he”; it’s whether you say “him arrives before the performance begins” or “he arrives before the performance begins.”

    The subject of the clause in your example is “whoever,” and the subject must be in the nominative case. Always. No exceptions. The fact that the relative clause follows a preposition matters not.

    So when is “whomever” correct in a relative clause? When it’s the object, not the subject, e.g., “Give that to whomever she danced with last.” Why? Because she last danced with *him*, not with he.

    I am so distressed that Mrs. Chili, of all people, has perpetrated this all-too-common error that I need to head to the beach immediately and try to calm down. 😉

  2. Geoffrey Pullum has some wonderful things to say about “whom”:

    I’m of the opinion that the who/whom distinction is not part of the language that anyone acquires; it is artificial. It is still common in standard written English, but it’s something we have to be taught, and it’s often used as a status symbol.

  3. The one in the test is whomever, though, right?

  4. You know what, Denever? I KNEW I was going to get in trouble for that one – it didn’t sound right to me, but I couldn’t find anything to tell me it was wrong, so I did a bit more digging. Here’s what I found when I went looking for the whomever/whoever distinction (and I’ve fixed the error in the post, too):

    Rule 1 First of all, use the “ever” suffix when who or whom can fit into two clauses in the sentence.

    Example: Give it to whoever/whomever asks for it first.
    Give it to him. He asks for it first.

    Rule 2 Because we can substitute him and he in both clauses, we must use the “ever” suffix. Now, to determine whether to use whoever or whomever, here is the rule:
    him + he = whoever
    him + him = whomever
    Therefore, Give it to <em>whoever</em> asks for it first.

    Examples: We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend.
    We will hire him. You recommend him.
    him + him = whomever

    We will hire whoever/whomever is most qualified.
    We will hire him. He is most qualified.
    him + he = whoever

    Rule 3 When the entire whoever/whomever clause is the subject of the verb following the clause, look inside the clause to determine whether to use whoever or whomever.

    Examples: Whoever is elected will serve a four-year term.
    Whoever is elected is the subject of will serve.
    Whoever is the subject of is.
    Whomever you elect will serve a four-year term.
    Whomever you elect is the subject of will serve.
    Whomever is the object of you elect.

  5. I think you’re brave for tackling this subject and risking the wrath of whomever!

  6. this is one of my favorites, and the clause thing has caused me problems too. my favorite who/whom story, though, is that one day in class, one of my kids asked me, “so i give it to who?” (about a hall pass) and i said, “whom.” he said, “who?” and i said, “whom.” he said, “who?” and finally i yelled, “whom! whom! it’s a different word!”

    the kids had apparently never encountered it. 😛

  7. Thank you, CTG, for the acknowledgement; I trembled in fear when I pushed the “publish” button, then smacked my own forehead when I got Denever’s correction. I HATE it when I’m so publicly WRONG!

    You know what, Lara? I don’t think it’d be a bad thing to just do away with “whom/whomever” altogether. It’s confusing, and seems to be making its way out of the language anyway. (your story made me think of the Muppet Movie – did you ever see it? – where Kermit is yelling about a “myth! Myth!” and a woman with a lisp walks into the scene and says “yeth?”)

  8. Denever

    Back from the beach …

    I’m about ready to agree about doing away with “whom” and “whomever.” I’ve never minded the use of “who” when “whom” is technically correct, because it sounds fine, if informal, to my ear. (Within reason: I don’t think I’d ever say “To who should I give this?” but I say “Who should I give this to?” with no remorse.)

    But when someone uses “whom” or “whomever” when it’s wrong – oy. First I wince because it offends my carefully calibrated grammatical ear. Then I wince again because it’s embarrassing to hear someone trying to sound erudite and failing.

    Then I’m torn, because I think, “Anyone who bothers to use ‘whomever,’ correctly or not, probably cares about grammar – or at least wants to sound like someone who cares about grammar – so maybe I should explain about relative clauses and why ‘whoever’ should be used in this case.”

    Then I think, “Naaah, that’s not going to be a welcome lesson. Better keep my mouth shut.”

    And then I go off feeling as though I’ve wimped out on a chance to keep someone from continuing to make a fool of himself. Or herself.

    It’s exhausting.

  9. Denever, I’m sorry to have caused you such angst. It’s a tricky one, this….

  10. I was caught out on this recently. I sent a letter to my local broadsheet that contained the sentence “I’ll give my vote to whomever…” which, on being published, was ever so quietly edited to “I’ll give my vote to whoever…”

    I think it’s possible to make a case for either, since it really is a borderline case and depends on whether you attend to the clearly dative case as marked by ‘to…’, or if you prefer to parse the pronoun as belonging to the relative clause.

    The distribution of ‘whom’ has been restricted of late, to dative case forms (‘indirect object’, in the traditional nomenclature). Basically, it only occurs nowadays whenever it directly follows a preposition. It’s not surprising then, that the sentence in my letter sounded fine, to me at least, with ‘whomever’. I can put it in a more theoretically-laden form if you like, but I won’t¹.

    I agree that ‘whom/whomever’ are both useless nowadays except as shibboleths. Those who use them ‘properly’ are celebrated as illuminati, those who don’t use them at all get away with it, and those who use them incorrectly are damned as fools. I remember (I may have actualy brought it up before here, or elsewhere) another letter in my local broadsheet, from an old lady, that read “You all have it wrong. It’s ‘things that‘, ‘animals which‘ and ‘people who‘.” Or something like that.

    ¹Actually, I will:
    While the pronoun is the subject of the relative clause, it’s arguable that, in virtue of being the left-most entity of a raltive clause, which is in fact acting as the indirect object of the main clause headed by ‘give’, and is therefore on the border between main clause and relative clause, it’s possible to parse it as having been ‘raised’ to object position, which is not altogether unlikely. It happens elsewhere as in ‘I want him to go’, which derives from a main clause containing a subordinate clause:
    [I want {(that) he goes}]
    Here, ‘he’ is in the nominative (subject) case, as it is the subject of ‘go’. But, in virture of the lexically specified requirement of ‘want’, namely, that it requires an object (merely I want is ill-formed), ‘he’ is ‘raised’ to the object position and becomes ‘him’. As for the rest, well, there’s a requirement in English that each S contains only one I; each sentence allows a maximum of one inflected verb. “I want that he goes” is analysed as two S’s, two sentences, or one embedded inside the other, so it’s okay to have two inflected verbs, ‘want’ and ‘go’. But ‘I want you to go’ is a single sentence and allows only one inflected verb, ‘want’. Ergo, ‘goes’ is relegated to the infinitive, ‘to go’.

    Simple, eh?

  11. ..and that’s what I was thinking with my original sentence of “give a raffle ticket to whomever arrives before the performance begins;” I was seeing “whomever” as the indirect object of “give.” Of course, there’s no way I could EVER have explained it as thoroughly and eloquently as you did here, Jangari. Thank you.

  12. Denever

    Oh, I wasn’t angsting about discussing it here; I assume that a blogger who runs a feature called “Grammar Wednesday” expects readers to point out any errors.

    I meant to respond to this: “I’m of the opinion that the who/whom distinction is not part of the language that anyone acquires; it is artificial.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. The “who/whom” distinction is acquired effortlessly if you grow up in an environment where both are used.

    If you grow up in an environment where they’re used correctly, only the correct usage will sound right to you, even if you never learn the reasoning behind the distinction.

    If you grow up in an environment where they’re used incorrectly or not at all, you will have to acquire understanding of their correct use in some artificial way (e.g., in a grammar class).

    It’s exactly the same for less troublesome constructions. If you constantly hear “ain’t” as you’re first acquiring language, you’re probably not going to switch to “isn’t” until someone like a teacher urges you to do so.

    But if you grow up hearing “isn’t,” that’s what you’ll use – not because it’s correct (or, if you like, preferred), but because it’s what you’ve always heard.

    Mrs. Chili’s “whomever” example instantly sounded wrong to me, not because I grew up knowing that you use the nominative case in a relative clause following a preposition, but because I grew up in a family where “whom” and “whomever” were used correctly. I suspect Mrs. Chili did, too, because she knew intuitively that something was wrong with the sentence.

    It’s grammatical terminology and reasoning that are artificial, which is why not everyone who can speak a language fluently can teach it to other adults.

    I’m currently learning my fourth foreign language, and every semester I see students flummoxed by grammatical explanations because they never learned the terms in English. They’d never say, “I pushed he toward she” – they know perfectly well that you have to use “him” and “her,” but they cannot tell you which is the direct object and which is the indirect object because they never learned that stuff. This causes tremendous confusion when they’re given rules for the new language such as “When both the accusative and dative objects are pronouns, the accusative pronoun precedes the dative.” For me, that’s actually a useful statement, and it’s easy to remember because it’s in alphabetcal order (A-for-accusative precedes D-for-dative).

    But, again, it’s the terminology that is “artificial,” not the use of “him” and “her” rather than “he” and “she.”

  13. Actually, Denever, I DIDN’T grow up in a household where these sorts of things were said; I am the first in my family to graduate college (and very nearly the first in my immediate family to graduate high school – my father passed his senior English class as a wedding gift from his teacher).

    Nope, I grew up as white trash. Boxed mac-and-cheese, American cars with plastic covering the back seat, and “ain’t,” “brung,” and “don’t no one” as part of the accepted vocabulary.

    I hesitated before pushing the “publish” button precisely BECAUSE it’s not a natural thing for me – I DON’T know it intuitively. If I had, I never would have pushed the button – I was embarrassed to have put something so blatantly wrong on a Grammar Wednesday post. (and YES – I WANT to be corrected if I’m wrong. I never stop learning…)

  14. I agree with Denever that the “who/whom” distinction would be acquired if you grow up in an environment it was used. However, my understanding is that it is not used in speech to any great extent, therefore it is not acquired as part of the language acquisition process for the majority of speakers.

  15. Eh, just say ya’ll and call it a day. LOL 😉

  16. Heh! I’ve found myself writing “y’all” a couple of times on the personal blog, but have edited it out because it’s just not me. I don’t talk like that – being a born-and-bread New England Yankee – but it IS a pretty convenient structure.

    “Y’all” is singular, “y’all’s” is possessive, and “all y’all” is plural – is that right?

  17. “Y’all” is singular

    Surely not. It’d defeat the purpose of having a different pronoun from ‘you’ in the first place. Unless it is being reanalysed, I suppose. In any case, I will accept the existence of all y’all as an emphatic.

    My understanding is that ‘Y’all’ differs in discourse functions from the Novacastrian (from Newcastle, Australia) ‘Youse’. Where ‘Y’all’ is used in all instances, ‘Youse’ is used only initially in the conversation, as a discourse function, after which the standard ‘You’ is used throughout.

    Denever, you make a good point about how knowing the terminology helps you to learn corresponding constructions and grammatical points while learning other languages. My ability to pick up other languages rose dramatically afterlearning undergraduate linguistics.

    However, I must point out a counter-example to your A precedes D mneumonic.
    He gave me a drink
    There, the ‘me’ is the dative and ‘a drink’ is accusative, or, it would have been if it were a pronoun. But then again, the occurrence of two pronouns forces the accusative before dative order:
    He gave her him is ungrammatical, I suspect, if it is to mean
    He gave him to her
    So I guess it isn’t a counter-example at all; when both noun-phrases are pronouns, the accusative must precede the dative.

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