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This seems to happen every time I go to my local bagel shop. Everyone is waiting in a line, and when the cashier is ready to help the next person, he/she asks, "Can I help who's next?" or "May I help who's next?" This seems wrong to me, shouldn't it be "Can I help whomever is next?" or "May I help whomever is next?"

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I'm not quite sure that whom really works better than who, because either way, we've got two clauses here, but just one word functioning as both the object of the one (whom can I help) and the subject of the other (who is next). Or, in simpler terms, "You can help I" is just as weird as "Me am next". In order to really overcome the problem, I guess you would have to say "can I help the person who is next", or something to that extent. But that's a bit of a mouthful. –  RegDwigнt Dec 16 '10 at 18:53
    
I see. In that situation, what should the cashier say that is both expedient and correct English? –  Ben Dec 16 '10 at 19:00
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I would say that the version with who ("Can I help who's next?") might actually be their safest bet, what with whom falling out of use anyway. Few people nowadays would argue that "Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!" is inexpedient or incorrect English. Similarly, "Who can I help?" is something a native speaker would produce, but "Whom is next?" isn't. So, if I had to pick one word in which to "merge" both who and whom, I would certainly pick the former rather than the latter. –  RegDwigнt Dec 16 '10 at 19:08
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@RegDwight: great points. Personally, I don't think "can I help who's next" is a problem needing solving, but it is a weird construction and an interesting question nonetheless. –  Kosmonaut Dec 16 '10 at 19:34
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I think "Can I help whoever is next" would be better, but it should definitely be "who" and not "whom". You say "Who is next?" and not "Whom is next?" –  Peter Shor Aug 16 '12 at 17:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This construction is indeed peculiar. Contrary to what one of the other answers seduces us to believe, it actually is not quite analogous to "I know who shot him" and the like. Geoff Pullum over at Language Log explains why:

It's very important here to distinguish two separate structures for who's next. One of the two is an interrogative content clause, and that's commonplace. There is nothing remarkable about examples like this:

  • I wonder who's next.
  • Let's go and inquire who's next.
  • Who's next is completely unclear.
  • Who's next doesn't matter.

In all of these, the who's next is interrogative. [...]

Now, interrogatives often have exactly the same form as corresponding fused relatives [...]: a noun phrase constituent in which, in effect, the words the thing that (or the thing which, or that which) are fused into the single word what.[...]

In general, fused relatives with who just aren't used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare's time it was commonplace (recall Iago's remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; 'twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.

Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who's next? we have a fused relative construction: it's the object of help. [...]

Things are completely different if we consider not the lexeme who but instead the compound lexeme whoever. That (like all the wh + -ever words) is freely used in fused relatives. If I was hearing Can I help whoever's next? I wouldn't have written this post at all.

Emphasis added.

So why did this construction survive in some places? And in which? Geoff Pullum initially observed it in Rockport, Massachusetts. He later adds, "Lots of people have now written to me to confirm hearing or using the expression in coffee shops, bookstores [...], up to about fifteen years ago [that is, around 1990], especially in the upper Midwest, which could be the cradle of the phrase." At the same time, M. Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language fame has been hearing it "a lot in shops and cafés in Brighton". She picks the ball up from where Pullum left it and entertains some theories.

Some of you may be thinking "Ha! I knew that such ungrammaticality must be an American aberration imported into the youthspeak of Britain!" But by Pullum's account, this is not a new construction, but an old use of who that had been thought to be extinct for at least 150 years. So, what's going on here? Is it that:

  1. this use of who died out in most places but survived in little pockets of AmE and BrE and may be making a comeback?
  2. this use of who is a natural development in English grammar that has erupted on two continents at vaguely the same time after going out of fashion for a while?
  3. the phrase can I help who's next? is an idiom that was (re)invented in one country and found its way to the other?

In the UK, I'm mostly hearing it from younger people [...] I can't imagine that that many Marks and Spencer assistants/clerks spend a lot of time in the US picking up phrases that seem to be used by a minority of AmE speakers (not necessarily in the touristy areas). [... T]hat makes me lean against hypothesis (1). I'm liking (2), but really have no empirical evidence for it.

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I actually would suggest who is correct here regardless of the declining existence of whom. I parse the "who is next" as its own inner clause that is all collectively the object of "Can I help". A similar example might be:

I know who shot him.

Where the thing that is known is the collective clause "who shot him" rather than just the who/whom. It would be rather odd to say:

I know whom shot him.

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+1 Having thought about it, I would have to give this to you Dusty. I might have as well answered a different question! What's the responsible thing to do here? Edit/append/delete? –  Jimi Oke Dec 16 '10 at 19:38
    
On further thought, I think this is excitingly debatable... –  Jimi Oke Dec 16 '10 at 19:52
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+1. To put it another way: the "who" versus "whom" choice is made based on what role the who/whom plays in the subordinate clause, not the main clause - "That's the man whom I saw"; "That's the man who saw me". –  psmears Feb 21 '11 at 19:45
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Related reading: Separated by a common language, Language Log. –  RegDwigнt Mar 29 '11 at 9:00
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This is an inaccurate parallel. In "I know who shot him", the thing that you know is the answer to the question "who shot him" - you're not implying that you know the shooter, i.e. that the shooter is an acquaintance of yours. So if this were analogous to "can I help who's next", then the latter would mean something like "Is it my fault that Reg is next? Can I help it?" This false analogy is irrelevant to the original question. –  user16269 Sep 19 '12 at 18:27

There are many formalisms that English speakers do not observe in daily or regular conversation. The usage of who/whom is one of them. In formal writing, one should use who strictly in the subjective sense, while reserving whom for the objective. Here are some examples illustrating this proper usage:

  • Who is there?
  • Whom shall we send?
  • I will give my money to whomsoever I choose.
  • Whoever cheats me will live to regret it.

My dictionary (installed on my Macbook dashboard, probably Oxford American) notes that whom has largely disappeared from everyday speech, but strongly suggests that the distinction between who/whom be observed in formal writing. I'll give some common examples where who is widely used instead of whom:

  • Who should I speak to?
  • Who should I call?
  • I need to see who that is.

Your example

Can I help who's next?

perfectly illustrates how English is used in real-life situations. For all intents and purposes, that question is correct, given the informal context in which it was asked.

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+1 This is the correct answer. The grammatical pedant in me wants to write "Can I help whomever is next." The pragmatist accepts that it would be very unlikely ever to hear a shop assistant using such a construction. "Can I help who's next" is the question that we should expect people to ask, and to understand. –  user16269 Sep 19 '12 at 18:30
    
If one wants to be pedantic, the correct version uses whoever rather than whomever in this construction as, though the accusative is required to agree with the main clause (Can I help John? Can I help him? Can I help him who is next? NOT *Can I help he who is next? - see Fowler), the compound lexeme whoever fulfils a dual accusative (relating to the main clause)/nominative (relating to the relative clause) role. Whomever fulfils a double accusative role (Treat whomever the acid came into contact with). However, I prefer [Who's] next, please ? / ! –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 19 '12 at 23:08

protected by RegDwigнt Jun 27 '12 at 8:57

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