6

A coauthor and I are drafting a letter, and we're not yet sure whom we're going to be sending it to. So I sent a draft to my coauthor, which started

Dear [whomever]:

Now, that line in a letter is in the vocative case (or would be, if English really had cases). I know that who is used in the nominative case and whom in the accusative/dative, but what about the vocative? Should I have written

Dear [whoever]:

instead?



Obviously, my question is only about such dialects as use who and whom. But it could be just as well asked about he versus him: had we been authoring a letter with a known male recipient we didn't want to bother writing out the name of, we could have used

Dear [him]:

or

Dear [he]:

and the same question would apply.


Equally obviously, because this is a draft letter and the word in question won't appear in the final copy, it really doesn't matter which word we use. I wish to know anyway.

  • Good question. I would venture to say that since you are addressing him you should use whomever. – Jim Aug 27 '14 at 4:21
  • The norm in writing a letter to yourself is "Dear me" so "whomever" would probably be best. – user0721090601 Aug 27 '14 at 4:41
  • The vocative case is used for such pronouns. It is a case in Latin, where it is exactly like the nominative in every declension except 2nd Masculine, where it has an -e suffix instead of the nominative -us (that's why Domine in Domine, non sum dignus 'O lord I am not worthy'). So your question answers itself. The next question is What is the vocative form of whoever? My guess is: not accusative. – John Lawler Jul 7 at 16:22
3
+50

One relevant piece of data (although I wouldn't say it's conclusive) is the case of the singular second person pronoun thou/thee in archaic English, since this pronoun had distinct forms for the subjective and objective cases and was used in the vocative fairly often.

When it was used in the vocative, the nominative form thou seems to have been used, as demonstrated by this quote from Shakespeare:

Kent. Thou whoreson zed! thou unnecessary letter! (King Lear, 2.2.35)

Similarly, back when ye was still used as the subject case form of you, the sources I have found indicate it was also used for the vocative (The English Language; Its Grammar, History and Literature, by John Miller Dow Meiklejohn), although as ye passed out of use the situation seems to have become less consistent (An English Grammar, by Eduard Adolf Maetzner, mentions some grammarians who describe ye being used in the nominative and you in the vocative).

I think it's fairly unnatural to use a non-second-person pronoun in the vocative, so I don't have any strong intuitions on "dear he" vs. "dear him" and I'd guess that different people would have different preferences here. Guifa has left some comments suggesting "Dear me" sounds better than "Dear I"; I guess I'd agree, but I can't think of a situation where I'd use either and both of these options sound awkward to me (I think people normally use second-person pronouns to talk to themselves, as in "You've got to keep going!")

I'd recommend going with the nominative "Dear [whoever]."


Another piece of data may be that in present-day German, which has retained case to a greater degree than English, the adjective corresponding to "Dear" is put in the nominative singular form when addressing a letter: one writes "Lieber [name of a male]" at the start of a letter in German rather than using dative "Liebem" or accusative "Lieben".

Not all languages with cases deal with such situations the same way: in Ancient Greek, it seems that the receiver of the letter might be given in the dative case at the start of the letter (according to Alexandre Daubricourt's answer to the following Latin SE question: Are there any surviving Ancient Greek letters (epistolary)?).

English is more closely related to German than it is to Greek, but even closely related languages can sometimes use cases differently, so the German data is not conclusive with regard to English—it only suggests that the nominative case is a plausible candidate in this kind of context.

| improve this answer | |
3

The placeholder (whoever, or whatever,) holds the place for a name/identity.

There's no case for the objective case here.

Not to be confused with the thought about "to whom it is being addressed," which is not relevant within the salutation here.

Say "Dear whoever;" "Dear he."

Claudia Coutu Radmore, Arctic Twilight:

It gets thrown around, Dear Sir, or Madame, Dear whoever.

Marjorie Razorblade,If you want … :

I wonder why every letter starts with “Dear Whoever?”

True, there are some instances of "Dear whomever" in writing, which I believe are a minor exception (85 to 1460 Search results may vary significantly.)

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    In letters to one's self (common activity for school children), would you recommend "Dear I"? – user0721090601 Aug 27 '14 at 5:34
  • I read the whom in Dear whomever as being an elided form of: Dear (whomever is being addressed/written to) But as JohnLawler says (in paraphrase) "If you always use who you can never go truly wrong" – Jim Aug 27 '14 at 5:42
  • @Jim That distinction I have already mentioned in the answer: the salutation vs. the expression "whoever that is meant to be." – Kris Aug 27 '14 at 5:45
  • @Kris - yes, you mentioned and dismissed it. I'm suggesting it should not be dismissed because it is relevant with an explanation of why I think so. – Jim Aug 27 '14 at 5:47
  • 1
    @Jim I had to dismiss it as being a different case applicable in a different situation. Also, please review your most recent comment. – Kris Aug 27 '14 at 5:54
-3

"Dear" is an adjective modifying the person being addressed. In "Dear Mary" the "Dear" modifies "Mary." This construction is different from "Hello, Mary," in which "Hello" addresses "Mary" and therefore requires a vocative comma between "Hello" and "Mary."

| improve this answer | |
  • What about the whomever/whoever and he/him examples in the question? – KillingTime Dec 6 '19 at 14:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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