Commonly Confused Words: Whoever and Whomever

Does Standard English Differentiate These Words?

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When should you use "whomever" and when "whoever"? That is a tricky question that doesn't have to be.

  • (Whomever, Whoever?) wins the game, gets the prize.
  • The prize should be given to (whomever, whoever?).

Some people seem to think that the pronoun "whomever" is the intellectual version of "whoever" and should always be used in every situation. Others use it for the sake of emphasis and flavor, known as the "Omnipotent Whom"—imagine an officious butler in the 1920s saying on the telephone "Whom shall I say is calling?" But there is an underlying logical rule that determines the proper form to use.

Whomever Versus Whoever

The standard English rules are quite straightforward. As with who and whom, whenever you would use I, he, she, or they, pick who and whoever. All of those, I, he, she, they, and who are subject pronouns, which is to say that in a given sentence they refer to the subject or actor, the person who is doing the action. She is in control here; Whoever is in control here?

Conversely, where you would use me, him, her, or them, use whom and whomever. Me, him, her, them, and whom are object pronouns, referring to the object of a sentence, the person who is receiving the action. Give it to her; give it to whomever.

Therefore, a simple mnemonic device to help you identify when you should use whomever is "hmmm": would you say "I want him to do that errand" or "I want he to do that errand"? If the first is correct (and it is), use whomever.

  • (Whoever) wins the game, gets the prize. [He wins the game]
  • The prize should be given to whomever. [The prize should be given to him]
  • Careful! The prize should be given to whoever wins the prize. [Whoever is now the subject of wins]

Why Does It Do That?

In English, and in many other languages, pronouns change case depending on the relationship. In standard English, he, she, they, and who are changed to him, her, them, and whom whenever the pronoun does not refer to someone doing the action in a sentence. "It" remains it whether it is doing something or something is done to it.

The easiest and most commonly recognized subject placement is the very first word of a sentence; whenever a sentence starts with a pronoun you can bet it will be I, he, she, they, who, or whoever. But when the pronoun occurs later in the sentence, English speakers find it tricky: is it me or is it I? It's not really that simple, is it?

Annoying and Picky?

If the differentiation between who and whom is annoying to you as an English speaker, you are not alone. Contemporary usage increasingly favors the use of "whoever" in both cases, in fact "whom" in and of itself is disappearing. I/me, he/him, she/her are not, however, disappearing anytime soon.

In 1975, the consulting editor of The New York Times Theodore M. Bernstein, said that "whom" should be banished from the language except when it follows a preposition; thus, "To Whom it May Concern" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" can stay, but everything else is "Who." Other esteemed writers like William F. Buckley agreed with Bernstein—but others such as Lionel Trilling and Norman Cousins preferred to stick by the old ways. Today, in most circles, selecting Who and Whoever as a default will be acceptable usage.

Don't feel sad about the loss of "whom." Its disappearance from the spoken English language was noted by the historical linguist Edward Sapir as long ago as 1921 in his classic Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

If All Else Fails

If the rules fail you and you don't want to use "whoever" as a default, do what all good writers do: rewrite the sentence and leave it out. After all, as we all know, the prize goes to the person winning the game.