Whoever vs. Whomever: How to Choose the Right Word

One is a subject pronoun, and the other is an object pronoun

Young man is congratulated with high fives after race
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The words "whoever" and "whomever" are often confused, with many people assuming that the latter is a more formal or correct version of "whoever." The misuse of "whomever" is so common that "The New Yorker" once published a list of examples under the title "The Omnipotent Whom." While these two words may seem confusing, there is an underlying rule that governs their proper use.

How to Use "Whoever"

"Whoever" is a subject pronoun (just like "I," "he," "she," "they," and "who"). As a subject pronoun, it refers to the subject or actor in a sentence, the person who is performing the main action. For this reason, it works just like any other subject pronoun. You can use "whoever" in any context where you might also use "I," "she," "he," or "they":

  • She is in charge over there.
  • Whoever is in charge over there?

How to Use "Whomever"

"Whomever" is an object pronoun, which means you can use it in any place where you could also use "me," "him," "her," "them," or "whom." As object pronouns, these words refer to the object of a sentence, the person who is the recipient or target of an action:

  • Give it to her.
  • Give it to whomever.

Examples

In English and in many other languages, pronouns change case depending on the relationship being described. 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 being 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":

  • Whoever finishes the race first wins a trophy.
  • Whoever wants to go on the field trip is free to come.

When a pronoun occurs later in a sentence, though, things get trickier. The best way to choose the right pronoun is to first locate the main verb. If the pronoun is the subject of that verb, use "whoever." If it is the object of that verb, use "whomever":

  • The prize should be given to whomever.
  • The prize should be given to whoever wins the race.

In the first example, the main verb is "given," which takes the object pronoun "whomever." In the second example, though, the main verb is "wins," which takes the subject pronoun "whoever."

If the differentiation between "whoever" and "whomever" 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, the use of "whom" itself is disappearing.

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." Today, in most circles, selecting "who" and "whoever" as a default is considered acceptable usage.

How to Remember the Difference

"Whoever" and "whomever" are different parts of speech. One way to remember the difference is with the mnemonic "hmmm." Would you say "I want him to do that errand" or "I want he to do that errand?" Since the first—the version with "him"—is correct, you should use "whomever." If you're confused about a sentence, try substituting another pronoun (such as "he" or "him") to determine whether you should use "whoever" or "whomever."

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