Arrant Pedantry

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For Whomever the Bell Tolls

A couple of weeks ago, Ben Yagoda wrote a post on Lingua Franca in which he confessed to being a whomever scold. He took a few newspapers to task for messing up and using whomever where whoever was actually called for, and then he was taken to task himself by Jan Freeman. He said that “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation” should have the subject form, whoever, while she said that the object form, whomever was indeed correct. So what’s so tricky about whoever that even experts disagree about how to use it?

To answer that, we need to back up and explain why who trips so many people up. Who is an interrogative and relative pronoun, which means that it’s used to ask questions and to form relative clauses. One feature of both questions and relative clauses is that they cause movement—that is, the pronoun moves from where it would normally be in a declarative sentence to a position at the beginning of the clause. For example, a sentence like You gave it to him becomes Who did you give it to? when made into a question, with the personal pronoun him being changed to who and moved to the front. Or a pair of sentences like I gave it to the woman. I met her at the conference becomes I gave it to the woman who I met at the conference. Again, the personal pronoun her is replaced with who and moved up.

Technically, both of these examples should use whom, because in both cases it’s replacing an object pronoun, and whom is the object form of who. But we often have trouble keeping track of the syntactic role of who(m) when it moves, so many people just who regardless of whether it’s syntactically a subject or object. Sometimes people overcorrect and use whom where it’s syntactically a subject, as in Whom may I say is calling?

Whoever adds another layer of complexity. It’s what we call a fused relative pronoun—it functions as both the relative pronoun and its own antecedent. Let’s go back to our example above: I gave it to the woman who I met at the conference. The antecedent of who is the woman. But we can replace both with whoever: I gave it to whoever I met at the conference.

Because a fused relative functions as its own antecedent, it fills roles in two different clauses—the main clause and the relative clause. And whereas a simple relative like who is always just a subject or an object in the relative clause, whoever can be both a subject and an object simultaneously thanks to its dual roles. There are four possible combinations:

  1. Subject of main clause, subject of relative clause: Whoever ate the last cookie is in trouble.
  2. Object in main clause, subject of relative clause: I’ll give the last cookie to whoever wants it.
  3. Subject of main clause, object in relative clause: Whoever you gave the last cookie to is lucky.
  4. Object in main clause, object in relative clause: I’ll give the last cookie to whoever I like the most.

So if whoever can fill two different roles in two different clauses, how do we decide whether to use the subject or object form? Which role wins out?

The traditional rule is that the role in the relative clause wins. If it’s the subject of the relative clause, use whoever. If it’s the object of the relative clause, use whomever. This means that the prescribed forms in the sentences above would be (1) whoever, (2) whoever, (3) whomever, and (4) whomever

The rationale for this rule is that the relative clause as a whole functions as the subject or as an object within the main clause. That is, the relative clause is treated as a separate syntactic unit, and that unit is then slotted into the main clause. Thus it doesn’t matter if whoever follows a verb or a preposition—the only thing that matters is its role in the relative clause.

I think this is easier to understand with sentence diagrams. Note that in the diagram below, whoever occupies a place in two different structures—it’s simultaneously the complement of the preposition to and the subject of the relative clause. Syntax diagrams normally branch, but in in this case they converge because whoever fuses those two roles together.

Grammatical case is governed by the word on which the pronoun is dependent, so we can think of case assignment as coming down from the verb or preposition to the pronoun. In the diagram above, the case assignment for whoever (represented by the arrows) comes from its role in the relative clause. Normally the preposition to would assign case to its complement, but in this situation it’s blocked, because case has already been assigned at the level of the relative clause.

Of course, case in English has been a mess ever since the Norman Conquest. English went from being a highly inflected language that marked case on all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives to a minimally inflected language that marks case only on a small handful of pronouns. Our internal rules governing pronoun case seem to have broken down to some extent, leading to a number of constructions where subject and object forms are in alternation, such as between you and I or me and her went to the store. The Oxford English Dictionary has examples of whomever being used for whoever going all the way back to John Wyclif in 1380 and examples of whoever being used for whomever going back to Shakespeare in 1599.

Which brings us back to Yagoda’s original post. The sentence that brought correction from Jan Freeman was “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit that investigation.” Yagoda said it should be whoever; Freeman said it was correct as is. Yagoda eventually conceded that he was wrong and that the Times sentence was right, but not before a side trip into let him who. Freeman linked to this post by James Harbeck, in which he explains that constructions like let him who is without sin don’t work quite the same way as let whoever is without sin.

A lot of people have learned that the clause with whoever essentially functions as the object of let, but many people then overextend that rule and say that the entire construction he who is without sin is the object of let. To understand why it’s not, let’s use another syntax diagram.

Note the differences between this diagram and the previous one. Him is the object of the verb let, and who is . . . is a relative clause that modifies him. But, crucially, him is not part of that clause; it’s merely the antecedent to the relative pronoun. Its case assignment comes from the verb let, while the case assignment of who comes from its role in the relative clause.

For he to be the correct form here, its case would have to be controlled by the verb in a relative clause that it’s not even a part of. Case assignment essentially flows downhill from the structure above the pronoun; it doesn’t flow uphill to a structure above it.

But apparently Harbeck’s post wasn’t enough to convince Yagoda. While admitting that he didn’t understand Harbeck’s argument, he nevertheless said he disagreed with it and declared that he was on team “Let he who is without sin . . .”

Some of the commenters on Yagoda’s post, though, had an elegant test to show that Yagoda was wrong without resorting to syntax trees or discussions of case assignment: simply remove the relative clause. In Let him cast the first stone, it’s clear that him is an object. The relative clause may add extra information about who exactly is casting the first stone, but it’s grammatically optional and thus shouldn’t affect the case of its antecedent.

In conclusion, case in English is a bit of a mess and a syntactic analysis can help, but sometimes the simplest solutions are best.

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Rules, Regularity, and Relative Pronouns

The other day I was thinking about relative pronouns and how they get so much attention from usage commentators, and I decided I should write a post about them. I was beaten to the punch by Stan Carey, but that’s okay, because I think I’m going to take it in a somewhat different direction. (And anyway, great minds think alike, right? But maybe you should read his post first, along with my previous post on who and that, if you haven’t already.)

I’m not just talking about that and which but also who, whom, and whose, which is technically a relative possessive adjective. Judging by how often relative pronouns are talked about, you’d assume that most English speakers can’t get them right, even though they’re among the most common words in the language. In fact, in my own research for my thesis, I’ve found that they’re among the most frequent corrections made by copy editors.

So what gives? Why are they so hard for English speakers to get right? The distinctions are pretty clear-cut and can be found in a great many usage and writing handbooks. Some commentators even judgementally declare, “There’s a useful distinction here, and it’s lazy or perverse to pretend otherwise.” But is it really useful, and is it really lazy and perverse to disagree? Or is it perverse to try to inflict a bunch of arbitrary distinctions on speakers and writers?

And arbitrary they are. Many commentators act as if the proposed distinctions between all these words would make things tidier and more regular, but in fact it makes the whole system much more complicated. On the one hand, we have the restrictive/nonrestrictive distinction between that and which. On the other hand, we have the animate/inanimate (or human/nonhuman, if you want to be really strict) distinction between who and that/which. And on the other other hand, there’s the subject/object distinction between who and whom. But there’s no subject/object distinction with that or which, except when it’s the object of a preposition—then you have to use which, unless the preposition is stranded, in which case you can use that. And on the final hand, some people have proscribed whose as an inanimate or nonhuman relative possessive adjective, recommending constructions with of which instead, though this rule isn’t as popular, or at least not as frequently talked about, as the others. (How many hands is that? I’ve lost count.)

Simple, right? To make it all a little clear, I’ve even put it into a nice little table.

The proposed relative pronoun system

This is, in a nutshell, a very lopsided and unusual system. In a comment on my who/that post, Elaine Chaika says, “No natural grammar rule would work that way. Ever.” I’m not entirely convinced of that, because languages can be surprising in the unusual distinctions they make, but I agree that it is at the least typologically unusual.

“But we have to have rules!” you say. “If we don’t, we’ll have confusion!” But we do have rules—just not the ones that are proposed and promoted. The system we really have, in absence of the prescriptions, is basically a distinction between animate who and inanimate which with that overlaying the two. Which doesn’t make distinctions by case, but who(m) does, though this distinction is moribund and has probably only been kept alive by the efforts of schoolteachers and editors.

Whom is still pretty much required when it immediately follows a preposition, but not when the preposition is stranded. Since preposition stranding is extremely common in speech and increasingly common in writing, we’re seeing less and less of whom in this position. Whose is still a little iffy with inanimate referents, as in The house whose roof blew off, but many people say this is alright. Others prefer of which, though this can be awkward: The house the roof of which blew off.

That is either animate or inanimate—only who/which make that distinction—and can be either subject or object but cannot follow a preposition or function as a possessive adjective or nonrestrictively. If the preposition is stranded, as in The man that I gave the apple to, then it’s still allowed. But there’s no possessive thats, so you have to use whose of of which. Again, it’s clearer in table form:

The natural system of relative pronouns

The linguist Jonathan Hope wrote that several distinguishing features of Standard English give it “a typologically unusual structure, while non-standard English dialects follow the path of linguistic naturalness.” He then muses on the reason for this:

One explanation for this might be that as speakers make the choices that will result in standardisation, they unconsciously tend towards more complex structures, because of their sense of the prestige and difference of formal written language. Standard English would then become a ‘deliberately’ difficult language, constructed, albeit unconsciously, from elements that go against linguistic naturalness, and which would not survive in a ‘natural’ linguistic environment.1“Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 53.

It’s always tricky territory when you speculate on people’s unconscious motivations, but I think he’s on to something. Note that while the prescriptions make for a very asymmetrical system, the system that people naturally use is moving towards a very tidy and symmetrical distribution, though there are still a couple of wrinkles that are being worked out.

But the important point is that people already follow rules—just not the ones that some prescriptivists think they should.

Notes   [ + ]

1. “Rats, Bats, Sparrows and Dogs: Biology, Linguistics and the Nature of Standard English,” in The Development of Standard English, 1300–1800, ed. Laura Wright (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 53.
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