Episode 280: June 18, 2011
by Neal Whitman
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It’s time to take another look at a perennial source of confusion and frustration in English grammar: the pronoun “whom.”
I talked about “whom” in episodes 44 and 98, and I’ll give a quick recap to set the stage here, but if you haven’t listened to them yet, or if you’re not sure you remember them, you should go back and listen to them to get the most out of today’s episode.
“Who” Versus “Whom”
In episode 44, “Who Versus Whom,” I covered the basics: “whom” is the objective case of the pronoun “who,” used when “who” is an object in a sentence instead of a subject. For example, you’d use “who” in “Who loves you, baby?” because “who” is the subject of “loves.” But you’d use “whom” in “Whom do you love?” because “whom” is the object of “love” – the “object” of affection.
In episode 98, “Who Versus Whom, Advanced,” I took on more confusing cases, such as “Who do you think did it?” Since there are two verbs--“think” and “did”--at first, you might think it should be “Whom do you think did it.” “Who” isn’t the subject of the verb “think,” but it is the subject of the verb “did.” Since it’s in the subject position, the correct choice is “who.” It’s not different from the simple case we just covered; it’s just that the sentence is a little more complicated.
“Whoever” Versus “Whomever”
If you’re comfortable with everything so far, way to go! You probably know more about the use of “whom” than the majority of everyday English speakers. However, they say a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and you now know enough to get into trouble. You must continue your Grammar Jedi training, or risk being pulled to the Dark Side, or at least, the Muddled and Confused Side. Waiting to trap the unsuspecting writer is the issue of “whoever” versus “whomever.”
When you’re faced with a “whoever/whomever” choice, it’s often a good time to dodge the issue and simplify your sentence.
At first, there might seem to be no problem. Take a clause like “whoever did this.” We use “whoever” because it’s the subject of “did.” Now take a clause like “whomever I hire.” We use “whomever” because it’s the object of “hire.” So far, so good.
The trouble begins with the fact that “whoever did this” and “whomever I hire” aren’t just ordinary clauses; they’re noun clauses—clauses that act just like nouns. When you use these noun clauses as subjects or objects in larger sentences, the picture gets more complicated. Suppose the noun clause “whoever did this” is part of a sentence like “I want to speak to whoever did this.” Uh-oh, you may think, “whoever” is the object of “to,” and it should be “whomever”!
Noun Clauses with “Whoever” and “Whomever”
But you’d be wrong—“whoever” was the right choice when we were thinking about the clause “whoever did this” by itself, and it’s still the right choice now. But what about that “to,” in “I want to speak to whoever did this”? The answer is that the object of “to” is not “whoever.” It’s the entire clause “whoever did this.” Remember, this is a noun clause; they call it that because the whole thing acts like a noun, and in this case, the whole thing is the object of “to.”
Let’s try another example, with the noun clause “whomever I hire.” Suppose it’s part of the sentence “Whomever I hire will start immediately.” What is the subject of “will start immediately”? It’s easy to trick yourself again, and turn that “whomever” into a “whoever” because it looks like the subject of the sentence. But again, we made the right choice when we looked at “whomever I hire” in isolation, and it’s still the right choice. The subject of “will start immediately” is the entire noun clause “whomever I hire.”
So to choose between “whoever” and “whomever,” look only at the noun clause in which it appears, and disregard the rest of the sentence around it.
Is “Whom” Becoming Extinct?
I’m sorry to say that learning this rule is unlikely to save you from “whom”-related grammar anxiety, for two reasons. First, the reason there is so much confusion about “whom” that I have now spent three episodes discussing it is that it’s a dying word. It appears so rarely that casual speakers don’t have enough data to figure out how to use it just through context. If they haven’t learned about it specifically in a grammar book, they’ll make their best guess about how to use “whom,” and often that best guess is that you use “whom” when you want to sound especially formal, regardless of whether it’s a subject or an object.
If “whom” survives at all, this sentiment could well become the accepted standard, like it or not. Worse, if that’s the rule your audience is going by, they might regard you as stuffy and high-falutin’, when all you’re trying to do is use standard grammar. It’s completely unfair!
Second, even those who have learned about “whom” have often learned only enough to cause confusion in the more difficult sentences. Even if you’re among “whom”-supporters, at least some of them will be firmly convinced that “Whom do you think will come to the party?” is standard grammar. At least some of them will be convinced that “I want to speak to whomever did this” is correct, and want to change your “whoever” to a “whomever.” Although the rules I’ve given are considered standard now, the misconceptions could well become standard in the future. In the minds of some grammarians today, they already are (1).
When in Doubt, Rewrite
To avoid the “whoever/whomever” problem altogether, you could rephrase it as as “the person who” or “the person whom,” or even just “the person.” So instead of “I want to speak to whoever did this,” you’d have “I want to speak to the person who did this.” Instead of “Whomever I hire will start immediately,” you could write “The person I hire will start immediately.” When you’re faced with a “whoever/whomever” choice, it’s often a good time to dodge the issue and simplify your sentence.
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded, and it was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
1. Zwicky, Arnold. June 18, 2007. “ISOC, ESOC.” Language Log post, http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004616.html (accessed June 9, 2011).