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Author Topic: The tough choice between “whoever” and “whomever”  (Read 170 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: July 31, 2017, 12:10:47 AM »

In an earlier essay in my Manila Times English-usage column I conceded that “whomever” is the formally correct usage in this complex sentence: “We must remain friends whomever/whoever they choose the winner among us.” But I raised the point that this use of “whomever” was so rare in spoken and conversational English, and that it was too stiff and stuffy for comfort. I therefore expressed preference for the use of “whoever” in the same sentence, defending it as a more natural and sensible usage: “We must remain friends whoever they choose the winner among us.” Now I will explain my position fully and cite my authority for it.


We can clarify this issue better by first taking up the pronouns “who/whom,” which are the base forms of “whoever/whomever.” After all, the grammar mechanisms of these pronoun pairs are basically the same, but the choice between “who” and “whom” is more straightforward and easier to grasp.

Now, recall that we can use “who” as subject nominative of a verb: “The applicant who called is here.” (Here, “who” is the subject nominative of “called.”) We can also use “who” as predicate nominative: “The woman who called was she.” (Here, “who” is the predicate nominative of “was she.”) On the other hand, we can use “whom” as object of the verb: “Whom do we wish to come?” (Here, “whom” is the object of the verb “wish.”) We can also use “whom” as object of a preposition: “To whom was the award given?” (Here, “whom” is the object of the preposition “to.”) When sentences are these simple, deciding between “who” and “whom” is quite easy—although the mind often balks at using “whom” even if the grammar rules say it’s correct.


When “who” and “whom”  are used in complicated sentences, however, choosing between them decidedly gets more difficult. This difficulty becomes even more pronounced when “who” or “whom” is detached from the verb or preposition that determines its form. Consider this sentence: “Who/whom do they believe is the most qualified applicant?” Here, it takes some mental effort to see that “who”—as subject of the verb “is”—is the correct choice, not “whom” as object of the verb “believe.” Now look at this more complicated sentence: “The actress who/whom the producers contracted for the lead role showed up disheveled at the set.” Here, the correct pronoun is “whom” as object of the verb “contracted,” not “who” as subject of “showed up.”

If you are still there following this rather abstruse discussion, try analyzing this much more complicated sentence: “You wouldn’t believe it, but I’m handling the case of the American woman who/whom the United States is working to persuade the Philippines to hand over to federal authorities.” The correct pronoun here is “whom” as object of the verb “hand over,” but by this time, I’m sure that you are already too dazed and too tired to even attempt to figure out why and to even care if your choice is correct or not.

The point I am making here is that choosing between “who” and “whom” in complicated sentences is so tedious and time-consuming that it’s simply not worth the effort of someone who has better use of his time. This is the reason why writers from the time of Shakespeare up to the present have been interchangeably using “who” and “whom” without hesitation or guilt. Since competent writers simply won’t follow the abstruse usage rules, only the most hide-bound grammarians have thus been inclined to strictly enforce them.


But to me, an even more important consideration in choosing between “who” and “whom”—and by extension also between “whoever” and “whomever”—is naturalness of expression. Here’s what The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says about this matter: “In speech and informal writing...considerations other than strict grammatical correctness often come into play. Who may sound more natural than whom in a sentence such as ‘Who did John say he was going to support?’ —though it is incorrect according to the traditional rules. In general, who tends to predominate over whom in informal contexts. Whom may sound stuffy even when correctly used, and when used where who would be correct, as in ‘Whom shall I say is calling?’, whom may betray grammatical ignorance.”

The American Heritage Dictionary continues: “Though traditionalists will insist on whom when the relative pronoun is the object of a preposition that ends a sentence, grammarians since Noah Webster have argued that the excessive formality of whom is at odds with the relative informality associated with this construction; thus they contend that a sentence such as ‘Who did you give it to?’ should be regarded as entirely acceptable.”

And summing up its exhortation for users to loosen up on “who/whom” and “whoever/whomever,” The American Heritage Dictionary says: “The grammatical rules governing the use of who and whom in formal writing apply equally to whoever and whomever and are similarly often ignored in speech and informal writing.”

With that, I rest my case on “whoever vs. whomever.” (2003)

This essay first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the September 20, 2003 issue of The Manila Times, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: July 31, 2017, 12:43:39 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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