‘Whomever’ Revisionism

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I admit to being a whomever scold. As I observed in this space in 2014, most of the times one encounters the word, it’s used incorrectly. I am not alone in this feeling. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s second definition of whomever is: “Misused for whoever as subject of relative clause preceded by a preposition.”

An example is the headline at the top of this post, which appeared in the Pasadena Star-News on April 24. The editor who wrote the headline fell into this trap because for (like all prepositions) is normally followed by a noun in the objective case. The problem is that here, for is followed by a relative clause (also serving as a noun phrase), which calls for a noun in the subjective case.

A similar (understandable) error occurs when whovever/whomever follows a transitive verb, as in, “Thank whomever it was who suggested it to you, and honor them with your gratitude.”

I found both that sentence and the Pasadena article by searching for “whomever” in Google News. Of the first 10 hits, seven were wrong, including:

  • “The main thing that I wanted to point out was, number one, it was very irresponsible of whomever did it.”
  • “Will federal authorities award $50,000 to whomever spotted Cleveland Facebook killer?”
  • “Instead of dealing with whomever made the domestic violence call, someone else started shooting at the officers.”

Sometimes, of course, whomever is correct, as in, “I feel sorry for whomever the recession hit,” or one of the OK (albeit awkward) Google News sentences, from the Toronto Sun: “When things would start to go south with whomever I was involved with (as they inevitably would), my ‘cushions’ were there for a flirty ego boost and a potential rebound relationship.”

My suggested test for choosing between whoever and whomever is to put that hole in the sentence aside for a moment and look at the rest of the clause. If takes an object at the end (“I was involved with … her”), use whomever; if it takes a subject at the beginning (“She … abandoned these chickens”), use whoever. Another method is to see if you can swap in he who (use whoever) or him who (whomever.)

The New York Times recently published this sentence: “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation.” True to form, I mocked the Times on Twitter for falling into the whomever trap.

And I got blowback.

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, former language columnist for the Boston Globe, tweeted, “I too would both say & write ‘whoever,’ but ‘whomever’ is grammatically correct here, no?” I know enough not to dismiss anything Jan says, but after some consideration I answered, “No.” I felt bolstered  in my opinion after her subsequent tweet, “As in (the oft-misquoted) ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’”

The Bible verse in question is John 8:7, rendered in the English Standard Version as, “And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’” (Interestingly, of the 25 translations given at this page, only two  use “Let him who [or 'that'] … “: the English Standard Version, published in 2001, and the Darby translation, from the 19th century. The King James Bible has, “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” None of the translations have it as, “Let he who is without sin … “)

Jan linked to a blog post by James Harbeck, which contends “Let him who is without sin” is right and “Let he who is without sin” is wrong. James  says the “who is without sin” part is

a relative clause modifying the him. Relative clauses do not change the syntactic structure of the main clause in which they are embedded; they can always be lifted out and leave the main clause intact. And the reason they can do so is that they have their own subject and predicate. The subject, as I mentioned, is the relative pronoun who.

I’m not sure I completely follow this, but I’m pretty sure I don’t buy it. That is, I’m on team “Let he who is without sin … ” Another language blogger, Neal Whitman, tackled whomever in a 2007 post inspired by a brilliant scene in the sitcom The Office about whomever. Neal gave two (correct) examples, then what strikes me as a cogent analysis of the issue:

“I’ll kill whoever did this.”
“Whomever Tom invites will probably be boring.”

In the first sentence, “whoever did this” is the object of kill, but within this object, “whoever” is the subject of “did. “In the second sentence, “whomever Tom invites” acts as the subject of “will be,” but within this subject whomever is the object of “invites.” So which clause wins, matrix or the embedded?

As might have been guessed by my choice of “whoever” or “whomever,” the rule in Standard English is that the embedded clause wins. Thus, it doesn’t matter that “whoever did this” is the direct object of the matrix clause; all that matters is that “whoever” is the subject of “did.” It doesn’t matter that “whomever Tom invites” is the subject of the matrix clause; all that matters is that “whomever” is the direct object of “invites.”

Readers who are still awake at this point may have noticed that Whitman’s first example follows the same structure as the Times’s “Whomever Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.” I now concede that it is right and I was wrong.

In the Twitter exchange about whomever, someone quoted Bryan Garner, editor of Garner’s Modern English Usage, to the effect, “If you’re unsure of the correct word, choose whoever.” That will usually work but not always. In the light of my New York Times error, I would now advise rewriting the sentence in question so you don’t have to use either one.


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