The following example fails the he/him test for whoever/whomever:

Please give the key to whoever needs to open that cabinet.

Give the key to him or he? Give the key to him.

However, when asking who opened that cabinet, he works instead.

So the question, then, is which part of the sentence do we perform the trick on? The predicate is "open that cabinet," which would mean whoever does take on the subject and is correct here. But why isn't "give the key" the predicate?

  • The answer to that question was extremely complex and beyond my skill level to understand. Also, I think my question is different in that parts of the sentence fail the he/him test, which makes answering it correctly an illustrative case and useful for people on the site.
    – user27343
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 23:23
  • I don't think the situation is different. As the question there says, we use "he" in "He created it" but "him" in "Put me in touch with him". It is a complicated answer, but it's kind of a complicated topic. The basic answer is to use "whoever", as long as it sounds acceptable to you in this sentence
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 23:31
  • I'd just like to know why the trick works when asked of "who opened the cabinet" and not the first part. If anything, the order is reversed in the duplicate candidate. And again, it's an advanced answer. I'm confident there's a simpler way to explain it for the lay student.
    – user27343
    Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 23:46
  • I'm sorry, but I don't understand your answer or the duplicate answer. What about "please give the key to whomever"?
    – user27343
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 0:09
  • I see, sorry that the linked post didn't help. I'm a little confused about where you're coming at this from. Why are you sure that there's a simpler answer (do you have a particular one in mind)? Why do lay students need to know "tricks" about when to use "whoever" vs. "whomever"?
    – herisson
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 1:09

2 Answers 2


The he/him test is much overrated, especially when it comes
without instructions for use in complex sentences.

Let's parse it as a statement, not an order, ok?

  • He'll give the key to whoever needs to open that cabinet

is indeed correct. Whomever would be ungrammatical. That follows the actual rule.

The reason why the he/him test doesn't work here is that the wh-ever word is
not only
- after the preposition to (where him would work),
but also
- before the tensed verb needs (where he would work).

So the question is whether the wh-ever word is (respectively)
- the object of the preposition to
- the subject of the verb needs.

Elimination gives the answer. It has to be one or the other.

  • On the one hand, if it's the object of the preposition, it can't be the subject; but then what is the subject of needs? This is a tensed clause, and they require a subject. That's a problem.

  • On the other hand, if it's the subject of needs, then that requirement is filled, but what's the object of to? Well, it's the whole Wh-complement clause (which is in fact a noun phrase and can be an object or a subject) whoever needs to open that cabinet. That clause describes and refers to the indefinite person who is the legitimate receiver of the key, the one who needs it. So that's no problem.

By elimination, then, it's whoever.

  • 2
    It even remains whoever if the decoy to is removed via dative alternation: Please give whoever needs to open that cabinet the key. For one reason or another, that one doesn’t seem to confuse people half so often as the to version does.
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 3:18
  • 1
    Excellent answer. Thank you and GO BLUE!
    – user27343
    Commented Aug 14, 2019 at 19:39

What John Lawler is trying to say there above is this: who needs to open the cabinet is an embedded question. English speakers do not inflect the man and so do not need to inflect who ....

In other words: A lone whom does not work as determiner (whereas "this is what" does), nor, as you noted, in the determiner phrase.

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