6

This question already has an answer here:

I am bringing up a rather pedantic point here, but, one that has me completely stumped. This is going to require some serious grammar knowledge.

I was in a line at a shop today and the teenager at the counter actually said "May I please help whomever is next." As a matter of conversational English, I dare say, this construction borders on pretentious. But, on deeper thought, it might be fine in formal English since the subject of the dependent clause should typically agree with the main clause.

But, then I found the following post by Edwin Ashworth on this site regarding the issue:

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).

I followed Mr. Ashworth's explnation until he started making distinctions between dual and double accusatives (which I didn't think existed in English). If anyone could offer a clearer explanation, I would be apprecative. Thanks.

marked as duplicate by Peter Shor , tchrist, TrevorD, choster, p.s.w.g Aug 1 '13 at 21:57

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 1
    To clarify Edwin's post: By dual role he means that the noun fills both an accusative role in the main clause and a nominative role in the subordinate. By double accusative he means that it consistently fills an accusative role in both clauses. – Bradd Szonye Aug 1 '13 at 9:06
  • See also this blog post and this blog post. – Peter Shor Aug 1 '13 at 11:24
  • By dual role, he means that "who(m)ever" appears both as the object of the sentence "May I please help who(m)ever" and the subject of "who(m)ever is next". Because "who(m)ever" is used as the subject of at last one of these clauses, you use "whoever". If it were an object in both clauses, you are supposed to use "whomever". – Peter Shor Aug 1 '13 at 11:37
  • Thanks, I think I understand the context of what Mr. Ashworth meant, i.e. object of both clauses vs. subject of the last clause, etc. What I am wondering is where his rule comes from, i.e. that "whoever fulfils a dual accusative" and "[w]homever fulfils a double accusative role[.]" I have just never heard this rule stated before, is it a formal prescriptive "rule" of grammar taken from another language or is it just an observation about how we speak? My general feeling about this is simple: when in doubt, use whoever. – Andrew Theyken Bench Aug 1 '13 at 11:59
  • It is a 'rule' given by Fowler. And explained more deeply by BillJ. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 9 '13 at 14:19
3

You only have a problem if you parse the sentence as:

May I please help whomever [is next].

If you parse it correctly as:

May I please help [whoever is next],

with whoever as subject of the dependent clause, then it is clear why whoever is right.

  • How does this square with my earlier comment? Why is it correct to parse it the way you say is correct and not the other way? – Andrew Leach Aug 1 '13 at 11:26
  • I believe the points are (1) if you can parse it two ways, and one is nominative, you use "whoever", (2) if you can parse it two ways, and both are accusative, you use "whomever", (3) if you can parse it two ways, you must use "who(m)ever" and not just "who(m)". – Peter Shor Aug 1 '13 at 11:27
  • 2
    Andrew, I agree that it would have to be May I please help him who is next, where who functions as the subject of the dependent clause. We could use whomever, if we wished to be formal, when whomever is the object of the dependent clause. I will help whomever the manager selected. Follett in Modern American Usage discusses a sentence similar to the OP's and states that the object of the main clause is not 'who(m)ever', but the whole clause of which the subject is necessarily 'whoever'. This is indeed a tricky issue! – Shoe Aug 1 '13 at 11:38
  • Thank you Shoe, your citation to Follett (and the explanation) pretty much settles this question for me. – Andrew Theyken Bench Aug 1 '13 at 12:44
1

The question between who and whom has been treated several times on EL&U. In my mind the following link provides the best answers. What’s the rule for using “who” and “whom” correctly?.

It's not such serious grammar knowledge as you fear. It can appear to be intimidating only because instances of whom, whomever, whom self, whom selves, have practically become extinct. People feel embarrassed whenever they hear or read these pronouns and feel they ought to know how to use these words in order to appear more educated. And perhaps in the case of the teenager shop assistant, who believed he was acting courteously (although it does sound affected).

*May I please help whomever is next.

If we substitute "whomever" with the subject pronouns she or he who is next i.e. anyone, and joined the expression with a "that" clause, we would have the following sentence.

May I please help she or he/anyone that is next.

Substituting she or he with the object pronouns, her or him would lead to an erroneous construction. We don't say: "Me is next"; "him is next", "her is next" "us are next"etc.. We should, however, say "I (that) am next", "you (that) are next", "she (that) is next" and so forth.

*May I please help her or him that is next. (incorrect)

Who is used to substitute the subject in the main clause, in this case; she OR he, and by tagging ever onto who we understand the meaning to be; anyone.

Thus we arrive at this grammatically correct sentence.

May I please help whoever is next.

(If I had been in the shop assistant's position I would have said) Someone else's offer of assistance might have been:

May I please help the next customer.

A grammatically correct sentence with the added bonus of not sounding pretentious in the slightest.

Tip: Never use whom, whomever, to whom etc. if you're not 100% sure of getting it right.

EDIT: Many thanks to @Bradd Szonye whose comments made me realize that the question of "whomever is next" vs "whoever is next" is indeed a much more complex grammatical one than I initially thought. I wish to qualify myself as not being a linguist but someone who strives to make the "jargon" more accessible, not only for her private students but for her own benefit too.

  • While I think you're correct, I'm not sure that substituting he/him for who/whom is helpful for native speakers in this case. The underlying confusion is that people aren't sure whether to analyze the sentence as “(May I please help him) that is next” or “May I please help (he that is next).” Is whom the object of help, or is who the subject of is? My instincts actually tell me that *“(May I please help him) (who is next)” is correct, even though I'm pretty sure it's wrong when I think it through. – Bradd Szonye Aug 1 '13 at 8:30
  • @BraddSzonye But whoever means "anyone" as in: May I help anyone next? That surely is a correct sentence, isn't it? If my answer is wrong, please tell me. But I don't think it is... Maybe I have over-simplified the matter. "May I please help whomever is next" just doesn't sound right. – Mari-Lou A Aug 1 '13 at 8:41
  • I think you are correct. However, it's hard to follow your reasoning because your clarifying example, “May I please help she and he (which one = anyone) that is next,” looks incorrect. There's too much noise in the middle of the key phrase, “she that is next,” so instead the eye focuses on the awkward “May I please help she....” I recommend dropping the extra words (and especially the parentheses) breaking up the key phrase. – Bradd Szonye Aug 1 '13 at 8:49
  • 1
    "He who is next" is an entire idea. If that is used as an object (say, of help) it becomes him who is next. On that basis, whomever would be correct. – Andrew Leach Aug 1 '13 at 9:01
  • @Mari-LouA That's much better, although I would simplify it even further and also emphasize the verb: “May I please help she who is next.” By the way, I really appreciate your contributions here – you're an asset to the site. – Bradd Szonye Aug 1 '13 at 9:04

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