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Old 11-03-2012, 03:15 PM   #1
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whoever vs whomever

The issue sometimes does come up on writer forums: whoever vs whomever.

For example, a type of sentence that can cause problems is one such as this:
Tom was willing to date whoever/whomever was waiting for him on the other side of the door.
The problem in that sentence is that the pronoun (relative word) seems to have to fulfill two opposing syntactic functions at the same time. It wants to fulfill the case requirement of the matrix clause (pronoun be in the accusative case) and the case requirement of the relative clause (pronoun be in the nominative case). In this specific example, the nominative case ("whoever") sounds better to my ear, while the accusative case ("whomever") seems to sound a bit stilted.
  1. Tom was willing to date whoever was waiting for him on the other side of the door. (my preference)
  2. Tom was willing to date whomever was waiting for him on the other side of the door.
So, let's see if there's some stuff on this in a reference grammar.

In the reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, first published in 2002, on pages 1073-4:
Quote:
. . . In constructions with personal who and whoever, the pronoun has to satisfy the case requirements of both the relative clause and the matrix clause in which the whole NP is functioning. Compare:
[18]
i. [Whoever is responsible for the damage] must pay for it.
ii. He will criticise [whomever she brings home].
iii. ?[Whomever he marries] will have to be very tolerant.
iv. ?She lunches with [whomever is going her way after morning classes].

In [i] both the whole NP (bracketed) and the relativised element (underlined) are subject of their respective clauses: the nominative form matches both requirements. In [ii] both the whole NP and the relativised element are objects, and the accusative is fully acceptable though somewhat formal in style. In [iii-iv], however, there is a clash between the function of the whole NP and that of the relativised element -- respectively subject and object in [iii], object of a preposition and subject in [iv] -- and the result is at best very questionable. Whoever would be preferable in both, but many would regard it as less than fully acceptable in formal style.
It is example [18.iv] and its discussion that is very applicable here. This excerpt from CGEL seems to be succinct and informative.

I'd be surprised to find this information in a grammar usage manual, or style manual; and there's a good chance that it might not be in many reference grammars (I don't think Quirk et al. 1985 has it -- edited-to-add: they do have something on page 1052 as part of note 'e', but their way of looking at this issue seems to be different). There might be a chance that some blog by a professional grammarian might have this info--maybe. But I don't think there's much of a chance that an online grammar source will.

Last edited by F.E.; 11-05-2012 at 01:22 PM. Reason: corrected info related to Quirk et al.'s reference. Clarified a bit.
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Old 11-03-2012, 07:23 PM   #2
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Huh. I admit, I would've just treated whoever/whomever as the relative pronoun, and marked its case accordingly.

"I want to kiss whomever I see next."

"I want to kiss whoever comes through that door."

That said, "whomever" is even less common than "whom" in colloquial English to the point that any use of it sounds a bit stilted and archaic to me, or at least deliberately over-formal. So I'd be inclined to avoid it in anything but a very formal paper--and even there, I might just reword the sentence to avoid the problem.
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Old 11-03-2012, 07:29 PM   #3
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him + he = whoever
him + him = whomever

http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/whoever.asp
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Old 11-03-2012, 09:53 PM   #4
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"Why you makin' it so hard on yourself?"

Really, it's not all that complex. Whomever can only be used as a direct object, an indirect object, or the object of a preposition. All the rest of the time, it's whoever.

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Old 11-04-2012, 09:23 AM   #5
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Whoever said "whoever" would be "less than acceptable in formal style" in your examples 18 iii and 18 iv is, to put it mildly, wrong.


ETA: The problem, as I see it, is that people look at the primary verb or preposition and forget that its object can be a noun phrase/clause that must take a subject pronoun. But if you go into this, people's eyes tend to glaze over. And heaven help the person who tries to explain "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." It's a losing battle.
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Old 11-04-2012, 10:36 AM   #6
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I can't cite a source for this, but as far as I'm concerned the relative clause is what really matters for the "whoever/whomever" choice. That means that I would go with "whomever" in 18.iii but with "whoever" in 18.iv. I'd also go with "whoever" in your own example sentence.

That's assuming you're writing in a quite formal style. Otherwise, I'd go with "whoever" in all three examples.
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Old 11-05-2012, 10:45 AM   #7
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Quote:
"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
That example could be tweaked to have the thread's problem of a fused relative construction:
  • Let [ whoever/whomever is without sin ] cast the first stone.
That would now seem to have the same issue as shown in example [18.iv].
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Old 11-05-2012, 09:16 PM   #8
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Whatever.
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Old 11-05-2012, 09:59 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Al Stevens View Post
him + he = whoever
him + him = whomever

http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/whoever.asp
Quote:
Originally Posted by Al Stevens View Post
Whatever.
According to the grammar source you provided, http://www.grammarbook.com/grammar/whoever.asp, it recommends, due to its "Rule 2", and provides as an example,
Whomever you elect will serve a four-year term.
even though that clashes with its own "Rule 1".

Also, their example is similar to that of CGEL's:
[18.iii] ?[Whomever he marries] will have to be very tolerant.
and they (CGEL) consider that "the result is at best very questionable". And I agree with them, as that type of usage does sound a bit stilted.

So, I'd think that is a "whatever".

Last edited by F.E.; 11-05-2012 at 10:07 PM.
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Old 11-05-2012, 11:01 PM   #10
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Whatever.
Or should it be, "whichever?"
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Old 11-05-2012, 11:42 PM   #11
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When it comes to grammar, as to opinions and evaluations and interpretations, especially when they differ, then, I usually end up wanting to know where those opinions are coming from. That is, what are the qualifications of those grammarians (or so-called grammarians) and what are their rationalizations for those (differing) opinions.

Of those two, nowadays--since I've learned the hard way--I put most of the weight on the rationalizations. For them, I can evaluate myself and verify how rational them rationalizations are. For if a grammar source doesn't provide decent rationalizations for its opinions, then, basically it won't be too useful. (And many--if not most--grammar textbooks and usage manuals have many errors in them.)

And of course, I'd like to know who that grammarian or grammar source is. For instance, is the grammarian basically a holder of an undergraduate degree who has an interest in English and grammar? Or does that person have more qualifications? Or is the grammar source an uneven group of university students?

Also, I'm interested in knowing how the grammar material has been vetted. Was there a board of grammarians and linguists that edited the material? (If so, who were they?)

The internet is full of one-person grammar sources, and most of their grammar has basic errors. And too often, many of those "grammarians" don't seem to know how to parse the information that is found in dictionaries, and don't seem to be aware of usage manuals, and don't seem to be aware of reference grammars.

When I see a grammar source--whether online or a trade published book--and if I want to get a feel as to its competency, then, I will usually look to see how it handles a handful of topics that I feel that I am already quite familiar with. That allows me to pigeon hole that grammar source real quick like.

So, if a grammar source basically only provides "rules", where the rationales that support those rules are lacking or skimpy, then that says quite a bit right there (to me). Especially when the number of "rules" is relatively small. Today's standard English grammar isn't easy to describe or explain or layout in a single book, not even an 1,800 page book. Much less with a handful of "rules".

Now why is this important? The why is that if you are a fiction writer, then often you'll probably end up where your prose is criticized for its "faulty grammar". Very often, those that are criticizing you will be the ones that are wrong. Often, those critics will point to sites on the web or to printed 300 page grammar usage books as their grammar source. And that grammar source often consists mostly of "rules". And often, those "rules" are lacking.

I can sorta accept that many grammar sources might not be using the best terminology (w.r.t. standard English grammar). But it might be nice if writers would stop blindly using blogs and other stuff found on the web (even if it's associated with a university or college or some other institution of learning/teaching). It's important that the grammar that's being relied on is also agreeable to a/the native English speaker's ear. Too often I'm seeing native-English-speaking writers doubting their own judgment because of some "rule" that was found at some grammar source. ... Often, those grammar sources are wrong. If you're writing fiction, then those grammar sources can be very dangerous to your prose.
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Old 11-10-2012, 03:51 AM   #12
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Personally I always use "whoever" in fiction and "whomever" in essays etc.
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Old 11-10-2012, 03:08 PM   #13
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There was an article over at Language Log sorta related to this issue (nominative vs accusative), The accusative of panic, where they discuss an example that was embedded in a sentence:
The question should be "What/Whom has so divided our country?"
And also in that article, there is this quite relevent example of:
"Just noticing that whomever wrote the admittedly significant piece in your Oct. 18 [issue] ..."
This Language Log article is quite small, and might be interesting reading for those that are procrastinating.
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Old 11-10-2012, 07:12 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hannahward07 View Post
Personally I always use "whoever" in fiction and "whomever" in essays etc.
As a member of an academic family, I can't imagine that working out well. The higher-falutin' choice is not necessarily the correct choice. There are rules and they're not all that difficult. Why not learn them and use the correct word?

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Old 11-11-2012, 09:38 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by F.E. View Post
And also in that article, there is this quite relevent example of:
"Just noticing that whomever wrote the admittedly significant piece in your Oct. 18 [issue] ..."
This Language Log article is quite small, and might be interesting reading for those that are procrastinating.

I'm noticing more and more that letters to the editor are being reproduced exactly, grammatical errors intact, where once they were edited. Sigh.
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