English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I know this sentence is a little awkward. Bear with me.

"I will kill whomever I despise." -- This one feels correct. However...

"I will kill whoever despises me." -- Is this right? Would this one also be whomever? Or is 'whoever' correct here?

share|improve this question
    
possible duplicate of What's the rule for using "who" or "whom"?. Also, when in doubt, just use who/whoever. "Whom" is moribund. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 12 '11 at 0:08
    
@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 Whom is often compulsory after prepositions. That oft-wheeled out advice will often get people into trouble! :) – Araucaria Feb 14 at 13:14
    
Am I alone in reading this and thinking "It should be whosoever"? – AndyT Feb 15 at 14:14
1  
'I will kill whoever I despise.' is correct too, less formal than 'I will kill whomever I despise.' – user58319 Feb 15 at 22:17
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Both sentences are grammatically correct in that you've used the correct whoever/whomever in both. Break each sentence into two:

I will kill him. I despise him. [him + him = whomever]

I will kill him. He despises me. [him + he = whoever]

But the meaning differs between your two sentences. In the first you are saying you will kill people you despise. In the second you are saying you will kill people who despise you. Which is it?

Also, if you're a high school student in the US I wouldn't let my teacher see this.

share|improve this answer
    
What if I'm just a curious software engineer who has been out of high school for many years? ;) – TheBuzzSaw Oct 12 '11 at 0:55
    
@TheBuzzSaw: Project manager on your back about deadlines? :) – Snubian Oct 12 '11 at 1:42

Well, if we compare the uses of the root words, "who", and "whom", we can easily determine when to use "whoever" and when to use "whomever". "Who" is used when the person in question is the one acting. Eg. "Who ate this cake?" (someone has committed the act of eating the cake.) "Whom", on the other hand, is used when speaking of someone who is not acting. "To whom shall I grant the privilege of eating this cake?". The "whom" is used to describe a person who is not acting. So, "whomever" can be used when speaking about someone not committing an action, and "whoever" when that person is committing an action. For your first sentence, you are speaking of someone who is not committing an action, therefore, "whomever". The second is "whoever", because they are committing an action (hating you). In short, both of your sentences are correct.

share|improve this answer

You asked for an authoritative source for why the usage isn't determined by the verb 'kill.'

My sources are:

a) The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by the late Jane Straus

b) the book "When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People: How to Avoid Common Errors in English" by Ann Batko and Edward Rosenheim.

'Whoever' is the only correct answer in your second example.

Ms. Straus offers up a handy and infallible method to determine which is correct:

1) "play out" the sentence in question, and

2) make your pronoun agree with the verb in the dependent clause.

Her examples:

Give it to whoever/whomever asks for it first. [Dependent-clause verb is 'asks.' He asks for it first. Therefore, whoever is correct.]

We will hire whoever/whomever you recommend. [Dependent-clause verb is 'recommend.' You recommend him. Therefore, whomever is correct.]

We will hire whoever/whomever is most qualified. [Dependent-clause verb is 'is.' He is most qualified. Therefore, whoever is correct.]

So let's apply her method to your examples:

"I will kill whomever I despise." [Dependent-clause verb is 'despise.' You despise him. Therefore, you are correct: whomever is the right choice.]

"I will kill whoever despises me." [Dependent-clause verb is 'despises.' He despises you. Therefore, whoever is the right choice.]

As Ms. Straus notes, the likely reason 'whomever' sounded potentially correct to you is that "whomever is even more of a vogue word than whom. Many use it indiscriminately to sound cultured, figuring that no one will know any better."

In short: this frequent "look-how-smart-I-am" usage has gradually increased our tolerance for an incorrect pseudointellectual usage of 'whomever.'

Matter of fact, just last week I noticed it used incorrectly by both Frasier and Diane in a rerun of the old sitcom Cheers, and I shook my head, realizing that the writers wanted us to perceive both characters as highly intellectual and educated. So what better way to do that than write them a couple of lines of dialogue using an incorrect but awfully intelligent-sounding 'whomever?' :-)

FOOTNOTE: Here is a link to the trick on Ms. Straus' page, Grammarbook.com

And if you're not a fan of hers, like my friend @Araucaria, you can also see the trick's appearance in "When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People: How to Avoid Common Errors in English."

share|improve this answer
    
I haven't downvoted you, but please never ever use that book as an 'authoritative source'. It's full of bogus information, made up rules and factual inaccuracies. – Araucaria Feb 14 at 13:17
    
I appreciate you not downgrading me. And I accept that you don't agree with the book's content. But I think others may disagree with you. Here, for instance, a writer for the Washington Post cites the same book: washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/08/28/… – M. Z. Feb 14 at 13:36
    
Yes, shame on them!!! ;-) – Araucaria Feb 14 at 13:37
    
Perhaps you'll accept this as a more "expert" source. This trick is the same, but this time it's from "When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People: How to Avoid Common Errors in English." books.google.com/… – M. Z. Feb 14 at 13:42
1  
I added that source--and you--into the answer as a footnote, @Araucaria… ;-) – M. Z. Feb 14 at 13:48

I have a super easy method that I use to answer this riddle time and again.

Change the "who/whom" to "he/him" and try to make the sentence work. That way you can figure it out Basically the "M" will be consistent across both sentences. If the sentence works with "he" then the spelling you want is "who", other wise if it works with "him" the spelling you want is "whom".

You can do it a few ways and there are more precise grammatical rules but I personally find the consistent "M" to be the simplest method to quickly check in your head which word to use in a pinch.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.