'Whom' is hard, 'whomever' is harder

If you’re looking for a reason to avoid using “whom,” the best one I know is illustrated in this sentence from an ESPN blog:

“The game will be determined by whomever can pass better.”

That was penned by a professional wordsmith who recognized that the sentence structure called for an object. That’s why he used “whomever,” which is an object pronoun, instead of “whoever,” which is a subject pronoun. But it was the wrong call.

I see this error a lot. It’s one of those rare mistakes that may actually be more common among professional writers than among amateurs. I suppose that’s because professional writers feel more obligated to use “whom” and “whomever,” whereas amateurs don’t feel the need to sound so formal.

“Whom” and “whomever,” experts say, are for formal speech and writing. In informal speech and writing, you can just always use “who” and “whoever” and not worry whether they should have had Ms in them.

And professional writers seem to get the basic concept: who and whoever are subjects, whom and whomever are objects.

An object is either the object of a transitive verb, like “cake” in “We ate cake,” or the object of a preposition, like “Pete” in “The book was written by Pete.”

Our ESPN writer knew that “by” is a preposition. So whatever followed “The game will be determined by” was an object. But, in this case, the object is not a single pronoun like “whomever.” It’s a whole clause like, “whoever can pass better.”

Clauses need subjects, and subjects must be in subject form. Compare “he can pass better” to “him can pass better.” The first one, which uses a subject pronoun, is clearly right while the second, which uses an object pronoun, is clearly wrong.

But here's the clincher: A subject needs a clause even if that whole clause is itself functioning as an object. So the subject form, “whoever,” is needed to make the true object, the clause, make sense: The game will be determined by whoever can pass better.

When in doubt just remember that whenever a word seems to be filling the job of both an object and a subject, the subject form wins. Or try plugging in "he" and "him." If the subject pronoun -- "he can pass better" -- works and the object pronoun "him" -- "him can pass better -- doesn't, then you know you want the subject "whoever."

Sadly, a lot of people who know the basic difference between who and whom don’t know how to handle this specific dilemma. The “whoever” vs. “whomever” issue gives them away. That’s why, if you don’t know how to use all these pronouns in all these situations, you may be safer ignoring “whom” and “whomever” altogether.


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