To Whoever or To Whomever?

It’s spring, it’s time to clean out the garage, and you come upon a clutter of rakes and shovels you no longer use. You say to a friend, Give these tools to whomever needs them. That’s right, right? Setting aside the first problem of why, cleaning the garage, you’d try to be so careful about your grammar, let’s take this sentence as a chance to look at a peculiarity involving the infamous who and whom, a miscalculation more common than you might think.

We’ve had occasion earlier (He and I, Him and Me) to refer to what in grammar is called case, the spelling or position that some words take on to make their grammatical function unambiguous. There are three such cases in modern English grammar (nominative, possessive, and objective) and each does a certain job in constructing a sentence. At issue here is the last one, the objective, which is responsible for indicating, among other things, the objects of prepositions.

The famous twins who and whom (they’re actually two of a triplet, but that’s another story) have built a reputation for mystery that is unbecoming of their humble station. They are merely two cases, nominative and objective, of the relative pronoun who, which we use in that nominative form a thousand times a day. The objective form, whom, follows prepositions in elevated speech because prepositions must have an object they are pointing to: The neighbor to whom you gave those tools asked me to thank you. That’s elevated speech, indeed, and causes one to wonder too about the neighborhood.

The whomever in our example is nothing more than the objective form of another kind of humble pronoun, the indefinite (formed with the addition of the suffix -ever), and it too, we should expect, is to be used as the object of a preposition. So you’re correct when you said, Give these tools to whomever needs them, right? Wrong. The object of the preposition here is not the pronoun alone that immediately follows it, but the entire clause of which that pronoun is a part. And since the clause needs a subject for its verb and subjects are in the nominative case, we should restore this grand-sounding sentence to its right and natural voice: Give these tools to whoever needs them. When the object of a preposition is a clause, the clause cannot violate its own standing grammatical requirements.

Whom and whomever have a habit of barging in where they don’t belong, particularly when we sense, rightly or wrongly, a pressure to be correct about things. That’s when we are prone to make the mistake of relying on our ear to analyze, with the result that we end up accepting a construction as correct for the very reason that it doesn’t sound correct. But eyes, not ears, are for analyzing, and a closer inspection of a troublesome stretch of a sentence can quickly set things in order.

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