I just saw this question, which is about the whoever/whomever choice in these sentences:

I will kill whomever I despise.
I will kill whoever despises me.

It made me think; what is the object of the verb kill? Is it not who(m)ever? Then what is the object (subject) of the verb despise in the first (second) sentence?

And in general, is it possible that a word should have more than one grammatical function in a sentence? How?

(This edit is a about the specific examples given above. If that's not an issue for you, just ignore it and read Greg's post, which answers the question in the title.)

Turned out my examples were not to the point. I Quote from A Student's Introduction to English grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, p.191:

Fused relatives
The final relative construction we consider in this chapter is the fused relative, illustrated in [19]:

  • [19 i]: Whoever said that was trying to mislead you.
  • [19 ii]: I 've eaten what you gave me.

This is a more complex construction than those dealt with above. Here the antecedent and the relativised element are fused together instead of being expressed separately as in simpler constructions. The underlined expressions here are thus NPs whose head is fused with the first element in the relative clause.

Whoever in [19 i] is simultaneously head of the NP and subject of the relative clause, and its gender indicates that we are talking about some person. The meaning is thus comparable to that of the non-fused

  • The person who said that was trying to mislead you.

What in [19 ii] is likewise head of the NP and object of gave in the relative clause, and the non-personal gender gives a meaning like that of the non-fused (and more formal)

  • I 've eaten that which you gave me.

So in I will kill whoever despises me, the object of kill is the whole relative clause (i.e., whoever despises me), and whoever is simultaneously the subject of despises and the head of the clause.

I'm not really comfortable with the idea of an NP whose head is a dependent of an element (here, the subject of a verb) inside that NP. It's a loop. There may be another way to describe this construction, so this loop could be avoided, but I'm going to leave it here for now.

  • Though I have no examples at hand, it certainly is possible to write a sentence which employs homographs to produce two entirely different sentence structures and meanings, depending on which definition of the homograph is used. – Hot Licks Feb 15 '16 at 3:03
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    @HotLicks Yes, it's possible, but that's not what I meant :). Anyway, let's see if we can contrive a sentence like that... How about: "Don't go down that rocky road."? In one sense, it means "That road is rocky, don't proceed on it.", and in another sense it means: "Don't go and gulp down my rocky road ice cream.". Two sentences, in each of which any word has but one function. – Færd Feb 15 '16 at 3:40

In grammatical theory, for theories based on hierarchical tree structure, No, because presumably grammatical functions correspond to the descending lines of a tree diagram, and no two lines can converge, allowing a single item to be the daughter of two different mothers. I know of two theories which do not require strictly hierarchical trees and which do allow a single item to have two different functions.

One is Relational Grammar (and Arc Pair Grammar), proposed by Paul Postal, David Perlmutter, and others. However, although it is proposed in this theory that some tree branches converge, I don't know that evidence has been given that this is actually so.

The other is McCawley's variety of transformational grammar, described in his textbook The Syntactic Phenomena of English, which includes an explicit account of a modified phrase structure theory that sanctions converging (and crossing) tree branches. Specifically, McCawley proposes that the raised node of right-node-raising (RNR) constructions simultaneously has grammatical functions in both of the conjuncts to its left. So, for instance, in

John built, and I installed the stove of, the new kitchen.

the raised constituent "the new kitchen" is simultaneously the direct object of "built" and object of the preposition "of".

McCawley does give some evidence for his theory of RNR constructions that is based on how the CNPC constraint works in some rather complicated examples, which I cannot recall in detail.

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    That was very familiar to me, because in some languages a word can have different inflectional forms according to its function, and so this issue is discussed in their grammars, and a typical example for that situation would be a translation of John built, and I installed the stove of, the new kitchen. Maybe this matter is obscure in English grammar because different functions don't effect inflections in a word. BTW, I guess the fact that you didn't mention my example sentences implies that you don't think they're relevant here, doesn't it? – Færd Feb 14 '16 at 22:13
  • I didn't mention the original examples because, as some comments pointed out, there is no compelling reason in your examples to make the very same NP serve two different functions. "whoever despises me" is a NP and "whoever" is a different NP. Two functions; two NPs. – Greg Lee Feb 15 '16 at 2:38

The object of the verb "kill" is the entire dependent clause in both cases:

"whomever I despise" in case 1

"whoever despises me" in case 2

The object of the first dependent clause is 'whomever,' and in the second dependent clause, it's 'me.'

If a word is used more than once in a sentence, it could easily have more than one grammatical use. For example, take this curse-laden sentence: "F-ck you, you f-cking f-ck!"

In it, the f-word is a verb, a noun and (although conjugated differently) an adjective.

I'm not familiar with one word, used only once, serving two grammatical functions. I'll do some research.

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    I don't think it's a good idea to take the whole clause as the object, except for verbs like say, etc. (e.g. I'm hungry in He said: "I'm hungry".). – Færd Feb 14 '16 at 13:44
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    I'm not sure where you're coming from, @Fard. In this sentence, the object of the verb is in fact the dependent clause in total. That's what it is. Whether or not it's a good idea is another subject altogether, probably best taken up with fifth-century Anglo-Saxons. – M. E. Feb 14 '16 at 13:50
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    What I meant was that you can't kill a clause; you kill a person. Grammatical functions should reflect semantic roles. But maybe that's the standard way to parse this sentence. I'm just not sure yet. – Færd Feb 14 '16 at 14:04
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    I see. Well, in this case, you can't kill a person if the author, by his sentence construction, is not yet clear on which person is to be killed. The person is conditional right now, and thus the entire phrase must be considered as the object. Consider that if you don't do that, the author essentially becomes the Son of Sam, because the person to be killed would be "whomever." That ain't good. :-) Anyhow, check out "When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People: How to Avoid Common Errors in English" by Ann Batko and Edward Rosenheim. – M. E. Feb 14 '16 at 14:13
  • OK. Enjoyed the dialog. – M. E. Feb 14 '16 at 14:24

In the sentence The book I mean is lying on the table "book" features

simultaneously as the object of I mean and the subject of is lying

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    There's a hidden relative pronoun in between (The book (that) I mean is ...), which is the object of mean. – Færd Feb 20 '16 at 9:42
  • Yes of course: but the "that" relates in function back to its antecedent "book" which I should likewise contend is acting qua grammatical object. My view anyway. – ray morgan Feb 20 '16 at 17:57

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