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Whoever Would Use Whomever: Read On

Last week we discussed Americans’ odd fondness for whom. It’s a word that few really understand, but it just sounds so darned cosmopolitan.

If we’re infatuated with whom, we’re over the moon about whomever. You hear it everywhere. People love saying it—right or wrong.

Just recently, a major American newspaper ran a headline that said “…whomever that may be.” When the story jumped to a second page, the headline changed to “…whomever it is.” Horrors! In both cases, this was first-degree whomever abuse.

Like that errant headline writer, too many of us think that whoever and whomever mean the same thing—and that whomever is the sexier choice.

To determine whether to use whoever or whomever, last week’s shorthand rule for who and whom applies: he = whoever and him = whomever. Whoever is always a subject; whomever is always an object. That’s why whomever it is and whomever that may be could never be correct. We say he is, not him is, so we must say whoever it is and whoever that may be.

The presence of whoever or whomever indicates a dependent clause, as in this sentence: Give it to whoever asks for it first. (The dependent clause is whoever asks for it first.) You might think the correct word should be whomever, an object pronoun, since you’d say Give it to her or Give it to them. But here is the rule: Always use whoever or whomever to agree with the verb (asks) in that dependent clause, regardless of the rest of the sentence.

I ask for it, he or she asks for it, we or they ask for it. I, he, she, we, and they are subject pronouns. Therefore, Give it to whoever asks for it first.

On the other hand: We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend. Since you recommend me (or him, her, us, them), the right answer is whomever, the object of recommend, the verb in the dependent clause.

So the key is the verb in that dependent clause. Remember that, and may all your whomevers be winners.

POP QUIZ

1. Choose whoever/whomever you prefer.

2. Choose whoever/whomever you think will win.

3. Whoever/whomever is chosen, we must pick wisely.

4. We discussed it with whoever/whomever we figured might be interested.

5. Make sure whoever/whomever you hire turns out to be qualified.

6. Make sure you hire whoever/whomever turns out to be qualified.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

1. Choose whomever you prefer. (you prefer him)

2. Choose whoever you think will win. (you think I will win)

3. Whoeveris chosen, we must pick wisely. (he is chosen)

4. We discussed it with whoeverwe figured might be interested. (we figured they might be interested)

5. Make sure whomever you hire turns out to be qualified. (you hire him)

6. Make sure you hire whoever turns out to be qualified. (she turns out to be qualified)

Posted on Tuesday, September 17, 2013, at 12:39 pm


4 Comments on Whoever Would Use Whomever: Read On

4 Responses to “Whoever Would Use Whomever: Read On”

  1. Ben says:

    In the sentence below, should “who” be “whom”? It seems like “whom” would be the object of the preposition “about” or the object in the phrase “they’re serving whom.”

    They were feeling a lot of pressure about the makeup of their audience and who they’re serving.

  2. Ralph Doane says:

    In your example #5, could one make a case for it essentially being:
    Make sure (the person) turns out to be qualified?
    That would make it a subject of the dependent clause, hence whoever. (cf. Make sure he is qualified). That would assume that “you hire” is a contact clause/relative clause modifying “whoever”.
    Make sure (that) the person (that) you hire (is) qualified.

    • You have restructured the sentence. “Make sure whoever turns out to be qualified” is not a complete sentence, and is therefore not comparable to our sentence in which whomever is the direct object of hire. Your sentence would be grammatically correct if it were “Make sure whoever turns out to be qualified is hired.”

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