english

Whoever or whomever

I did one of those online quizzes, in the usual drunken flurry of angst and craving validation. It is called the Commonly Confused Words Test and I scored the result “English Genius”, which is overstating the case. You don’t need to be a genius to know the difference between “there” and “their” (although clearly the author of the quiz thinks so).

I didn’t score 100% though, so I was curious to know what was the one question I got wrong. Here it is:

35. She complains to __________ will listen.
a. whoever
b. whomever
c. Either a or b
d. Neither a nor b

I answered A, “whoever”. If you are a writer of any kind, the rhythm and flow of a sentence outvotes the dictionary, and even if whomever were technically correct in terms of a prescriptivist, 1950s-schoolteacher approach to syntax, it is ugly. You might write it in a letter to the 1950s, but otherwise it seems prissy, archaic and unnecessary, like wearing driving gloves.

The quiz author says:

Whom is always used when it is the object of a preposition. Who is used as a subject and when a pronoun such as I or he could replace who. Here is an easy little trick to differentiate between who and whom: Replace the questionable word with he or him. If you would replace it with he, use who. If you would replace it with him, use whom.

Quite true, but unfortunately she used the wrong example in the question. Whomever is correct when the person described is the object of the clause (“she complained to whomever she could find”). In this case, though, the person is the subject of an internal clause (“whoever will listen”) and so whoever is right.

Wiktionary says:

If an internal clause is the object of an external clause, the case of who(m)ever is still determined by its role in the internal clause, for example: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”. Here, the external clause is “Let X cast the first stone” and the internal clause is “whoever is without sin”. Whoever is the subject of the internal clause, so it is in the nominative case. Even though X in the external clause is the object (compare “Let him cast the first stone), it is the internal clause that decides whether whoever or whomever is correct. “Let whomever is without sin cast the first stone” is thus strictly speaking incorrect (although such constructions are widely encountered).

I didn’t know that, but I was sure I was right, if only because in any case whomever is becoming rapidly obsolete and is not usable in most contemporary writing registers (“In this week’s Take A Break: Jordan says ‘I’ll sleep with whomever I want’”). Needless to say, I had the last laugh.

I think this demonstrates the essential uselessness of such quizzes, or books such as Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” which empower people to gratify themselves by “correcting” what they see as the verbal mistakes of others. Language is fluid and democratic, and dictionaries and grammar books can only fossilise a more or less representative snapshot of usage which is by definition already out of date.

Some people are upset by the idea that there is no One True English (or any other human language). They feel instinctively that there must be some government department where these things are solemnly legislated (France actually has one, for all the good it does). I think this just betrays a lack of understanding of how language arose in the first place, and is forever reinventing and renewing itself. Or perhaps it manifests a deep insecurity of the kind targeted by the old “Shamed By Your English?” advertisements. “What I say may be trite, dull and inelegant,” they reason, “but at least it is syntactically correct”.

Unless it isn’t, of course.