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Should the following say whoever or whomever. And why?

Each of us is free to pretend to be whoever/whomever we wish to be.

This sentence needs an object, right?

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    Basic rule: Don't ever use whomever. Therefore the answer is whoever. – John Lawler Jul 14 '17 at 23:19
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    :) funny, but no! – martina tuwin Jul 14 '17 at 23:39
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    It seems like only yesterday that John Lawler was saying "The rule is – never use 'whomever'." In fact, I think it was yesterday. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 15 '17 at 14:42
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    I was, and with this same sentence, too. Whoever is correct because there's simply no accusative slots open for it to fit in. – John Lawler Jul 15 '17 at 15:18
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    @MollyW and original poster: which English class is sending its students here for help with their homework? The two of you have asked an identical question of an unusually detailed sentence within the space of a day. What class is using us as a resource? This is not forbidden; I'm simply curious. – tchrist Jul 15 '17 at 15:44
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Whoever vs. whomever is basically the same problem as who vs. whom, and there are some who argue that the problem so baffles so many users of English that we may as well just give up on the objective forms with the m in them, and just use the forms without it in all contexts.

The problem and confusion tend to arise because these (as used here, at least) are relative pronouns, and a relative pronoun can sometimes seem to be at once an object and a subject:

Solon gave the responsibility and authority to launch a criminal prosecution to whoever so wills.

People are tempted to use the m form there because the relative appears to be (and indeed is) the object of the preposition to. But more importantly, and generally across multiple languages, the case of the relative is determined by its grammatical role within the relative clause, in this case as the subject of the verb wills; so subjective case is quite properly used. The tension will bother some users of English even so.

In your example, the relative may appear to be the object of both the verb be and the verb wish, so whomever is tempting. But be is rather a linking verb than a transitive one, and wish is elliptical for wish to be, so on both counts whoever should be preferred.

Some say using subjective (aka nominative) forms with be (including where it is thus elided), as in “it is I” or “He is taller than I [am],” is stuffy and pretentious and should be abandoned; but when the pronoun is who or whoever, the same objection is raised against the objective form in all contexts, so in this case the old-fashioned purist/prescriptivist and the go-with-the-flow evolutionist are actually likely to agree in preferring whoever.

  • I see it as a 'fused' relative construction where "who(m)ever" means "any person who(m)". The pronoun is the predicative complement of "be" in the relative clause, so in accordance with modern grammar accusative "whomever" woild seem preferable (cf. Don't worry; it is only me). Nevertheless, nominative "whoever" is generally preferred. – BillJ Jul 15 '17 at 17:43
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I am interpreting this as a case where whom/whomever is not to be used for the following reasons, whereas much of modern English grammar advice would anyway echo John Lawler's comment that whom/whomever is never required.

(1) Who/whoever is a subject pronoun and whom/whomever is an object pronoun.

Who” and “whoever” are subjective pronouns; “whom” and “whomever” are in the objective case. That simply means that “who” (and the same for “whoever”) is always subject to a verb, and that “whom” (and the same for “whomever”) is always working as an object in a sentence.

Source: http://web.ku.edu/~edit/whom.html

This may be interpreted as follows: whom/whomever should be used only if there is the need for an object pronoun, and in all other cases (even as default in all cases, as highlighted in comments by grammar expert John Lawler) who/whoever is to be used.

(2) 'To be' is the basic form of is/am/was/were and therefore does not need a object.

In fact 'be' is a linking verb which

connects the subject with a word that gives information about the subject, such as a condition or relationship. They do not show any action; but, they link the subject with the rest of the sentence.

Source: http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-linking-verbs.html

Example:

I am a student // I wish to be a student.

Here I am the subject but 'student' is not the object, but rather a 'state' or condition of being.

Who do you wish to be?

I wish to be a student.

Well, you can be whoever you wish to be.

(3) In short, 'who/whom we wish to be' does not need an object pronoun and therefore 'whoever' is to be used here.

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    This learned member disagrees that whatever is more appropriate. – AmE speaker Jul 15 '17 at 3:19
  • @Clare 'what do you wish to be' is more commonly used in Indian English and 'who do you wish to be' is rather less common. I have also heard statements like 'you can be whatever you wish to be' which is why I tend to agree with the comment of Lawrence. Of course if you think it controversial I can delete that sentence from my answer. – English Student Jul 15 '17 at 3:23
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    "I wish to be him" or "I wish to be he"? Nobody actually says "I wish to be he". (But then, nobody uses whom, either.) – Peter Shor Jul 15 '17 at 3:48
  • @Peter Shor something very similar to that question has actually been asked before and in relation to who/whom english.stackexchange.com/questions/251039/… and I quote from the answer by sumelic: _ native English speakers tend to put the complement in the accusative in all circumstances. That's why sentences like "Will it be him?" are commonly produced and judged as grammatical by native speakers. _ I think a modern sensibility would consider 'be him' simple and 'be he' unnecessary but at this point it has almost become a matter of style... – English Student Jul 15 '17 at 3:49
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    @sumelic: But I found a different grammar book from 1878 on Google books. Quote: "The assumed subject of the infinitive being omitted when it is the same as the principal subject, him, in the sentence I wish to be him — equalling I wish (me or myself) to be him — is the proper form, being in the same case as me." Since this book agrees with usage, I'm inclined to trust it more for this sentence. – Peter Shor Jul 18 '17 at 1:13
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This answer uses a somewhat different line of reasoning (from my previous answer), which is why I have presented it as a separate answer to OP's question.

You are right that 'this complex sentence' needs an object for the transitive verb form 'pretend to be'...

Definition of pretend [transitive verb] 1 : to give a false appearance of being, possessing, or performing

does not pretend to be a psychiatrist.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pretend

...and that object according to your sentence is the noun clause "whoever/whomever we wish to be" -- now it is a question of deciding whether the verb form 'wish to be' needs an object:

I found the form 'wish to be' defined as an intransitive verb here:

Wish verb 2 [intransitive] to want to do something; to want something to happen

I don't wish to be rude, but could you be a little quieter// I wish to speak to the manager.

https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/wish_1

Intransitive means it does not need an object, so the object pronoun 'whomever' is not to be used, which is the answer to your question: so use "whoever."


On the other hand, if 'wish to be' is replaced by a transitive verb form like 'wish to see' or 'wish to meet' then whomever is to be chosen as the object pronoun.

  • But what if the sentence does not end with "to be"? Does that change your answer? "Each of us is free to pretend to be whoever/whomever we wish." – martina tuwin Jul 15 '17 at 13:00
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    @martina tuwin you are welcome! The sentence will not change if the last 'to be' is dropped because in this case it is assumed that 'whoever we wish' really means 'whoever we wish to be.' Again the key is that the 'wish (to be)' verb form is intransitive and therefore requires no object. On the other hand, if 'wish to be' is replaced by a transitive verb form like 'wish to see' or 'wish to meet' then whomever is to be chosen as the object pronoun. – English Student Jul 15 '17 at 15:42
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    @martina tuwin (contd.) ...as in, Whom do you wish to see? We can see whomever we wish to see. However whom/whomever are no longer commonly used by native speakers of English and grammar experts like John Lawler strongly recommend that we use who/whoever in all cases and never use whom/whomever, which is the surest way to avoid who/whom confusion forever! – English Student Jul 15 '17 at 15:53
  • thank you @English Student for the detailed answer! what's most confusing to me is that when I translate this sentence to Polish, the form whomever is absolutely correct... and the thing is that I use this technique whenever I'm in an ambiguous who/m situation, and it always rescues me... anyhow, whomever it is! – martina tuwin Jul 15 '17 at 17:37
  • dead @English Student one more, please! what about this sentence? "...to have marriage with whomever they wish." – martina tuwin Jul 15 '17 at 18:17

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