Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Would You Go on a Date with "Whomever" Has Good Grammar?

In advance of Valentine's Day, the dating site Match.com released some survey results indicating that good grammar is something that both men and women on the dating scene use to judge their potential mates. That finding led to a joke on Saturday Night Live that was supposed to illustrate "good grammar" but, ironically enough, failed to.

The Match.com survey showed that 55 percent of dating men judge women on "grammar," and 69 percent of dating women do the same for men. (Only heterosexuals were surveyed, apparently.) The only factor that ranked higher in the survey was, for both sexes, "teeth." On Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," Seth Meyers used the survey to set up a joke, which you can see in this video clip (starting 53 seconds in):

"A new survey finds that the number one thing single people judge potential dates on is the quality of their teeth, followed by the quality of their grammar. Great news for whomever has both." (Flashes toothy grin.)

Now let's completely sap the joke of its humor. The ostentatious use of whomever in "Great news for whomever has both" is supposed to indicate that Meyers does indeed possess high-quality grammar along with his high-quality teeth. Those who see the standards of English as falling frequently point to the declining usage of whom and whomever, but in this case, the whom(ever) form has been misapplied, at least according to the traditional grammatical view.

A grammar teacher would tell you that who(ever) should be used as the subject of a clause and whom(ever) as the object of a clause (typically the direct object or the object of a preposition). The tricky thing with "(This is) great news for ___ has both" is that you could think of the slot in the sentence as either an object (following the preposition for) or a subject (preceding the predicate "has both"). So which one is it?

The slot in the sentence is actually a subject, dictating whoever rather than whomever in the standard system, because it's filling the subject position of the embedded clause "___ has both." It just so happens that this clause is in turn filling an object role in the sentence, as the object of the preposition for. Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky calls this conflicted type of grammatical role ISOC, which stands for "in-situ subject of an object clause." And he finds that many people are tempted to use whom(ever) in such cases. (Check out Grammar Girl's podcast for discussion of the similar sentence, "I want to speak to ___ did this.")

A cousin of ISOC is what Zwicky calls ESOC, or "extracted subject of an object clause," which applies to sentences like "Who/whom shall I say is calling?" Again, there's a temptation to use whom because it may not be immediately clear if we're dealing with a subject or object. But it's a subject in the standard grammatical view, requiring who, because it fills the subject slot in the clause "___ is calling," in turn embedded in "I shall say [that] ___ is calling." Here, the wh-pronoun is "extracted" when it is put at the beginning of the sentence to form the question, "___ shall I say is calling?"

When whom(ever) gets used in such cases, what should we chalk it up to? Ben Yagoda considered an ISOC example, of the form "with ___ can go," in his great piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Elements of Clunk." Yagoda noticed that his students' compositions have been increasingly filled with a particular kind of error, the kind that makes their writing "longer and more prosaic." One hypothetical sentence he used to illustrate this tendency is:

For our one year anniversary, my girlfriend and myself are going to a Yankees game, with whomever amongst our friends can go.

Along with various other infractions (one year anniversary for first anniversary, my girlfriend and myself for my girlfriend and I, amongst for among), he sees the whomever here as a form of "hypercorrection," an error "induced by a combination of grammatical confusion and a desire to sound fancy." When it comes to who(ever) and whom(ever), "almost nobody is completely confident" about their choices, so the fancier whom(ever) takes precedence.

Zwicky, on the other hand, questions whether this is really hypercorrection. As he wrote on Language Log,

I suspect that these are not inadvertent slips, or hypercorrections at the moment of writing, but how the writers think case-marking of WHO works in object clauses in English... In fact, ISOC and ESOC might now be the primary islands of whom use in modern written English, outside of the mainland of P + whom  — that is, object whom with a fronted (rather than stranded) preposition, as in To whom did you give the book? and the student to whom I gave the book.

Regardless of whether you call it hypercorrection, there's no question that such whom(ever) use is quite prevalent today, even among writers who should "know better." Take this example of ISOC by the columnist George Will, pointed out to me by Paul Mulshine:

This matters because the folly of public financing of presidential campaigns has put $13 million dollars on the table to be pocketed by whomever captures whatever the Reform Party is nowadays.

If George Will and his editors can't manage to get it right, Seth Meyers (or whoever wrote his joke) shouldn't feel so bad. And something tells me that the people using Match.com to look for dates wouldn't care too much either way, regardless of how much they say they judge people by their "grammar."

For more on the shifting fortunes of whom(ever), check out the "usage showdown" we hosted between Zwicky and Baltimore Sun copy editor John E. Mcintyre in 2008. (The exchange, while enlightening, turned out to be rather too mild to be considered a showdown!)


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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 15th 2013, 3:01 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I'm always a little surprised at the vehemence with which some people seize on "whom" as a marker of some notion of grammatical correctness. It's certainly not difficult to find instances of even highly educated writers (like George Will, say) who can get "whom" wrong.

A friend of mine likes to quote Orson Scott Card: "So here is Orson's rule for avoiding looking like a pretentious idiot: Don't use 'whom' at all, ever, unless you truly understand all the rules of correct usage of the word." ( http://hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2009-08-30.shtml)

It's hard to come up with examples where using "who" instead of "whom" actually results in some sort of ambiguity. And if doesn't actually seem to have a legitimate grammatical function, what's it for? :-)
Friday February 15th 2013, 8:23 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
I'm willing to credit Seth Myers and the SNL writers with intentional misuse of "whomever" as part of the joke. It's good of you to explain. The real problem arises with the man who don't care none for grammar, and has no ear for the language.
Friday February 15th 2013, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Ah, collapsed relatives! It's "good news for him who has..." :-)
Friday February 15th 2013, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'd like to note that not all Democrats use those words correctly.

The President was caught posting this on a thing called Reddit:
[quote]We need to start with passing the Disclose Act that is already written and been sponsored in Congress - to at least force disclosure of who is giving to who.[/quote]

Now I did find that online. But then the other quote was there too.

Just want to be fair...

And not have the site be contributing to the notion that all Conservatives are grammatical dunces! LOL
Friday February 15th 2013, 4:42 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Did my comment get deleted already? I was just meaning to clarify that the misuse of 'who' and 'whom' is not limited to Conservative sorts of people.
Friday February 15th 2013, 6:22 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Jane B., why would your comment get deleted? In any case, it certainly wasn't.
Friday February 15th 2013, 6:40 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
I don't think anyone would accuse George Will of being a "grammatical dunce." I used Will as an example to show that even someone like him -- an erudite writer who should "know better" -- can get tripped up on whom(ever) usage, too. Certainly no political point was intended.
Friday February 15th 2013, 6:51 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sorry, folks. I didn't see the post at the first refresh of the site. And thought that it had been deleted.

I know Ben, but sometime, find a Democrat or a Liberal who goofs! Just to be 'fair and balaanced'. LOL
Saturday February 16th 2013, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Rain
The article didn't mention another way to determine whether to use "whoever" or "whomever:" the substitution of the word, "he" for "whoever" and "him" for "whomever." This method works all the time for me.
Saturday February 16th 2013, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
And that's a great, easy, solution!
Sunday February 17th 2013, 3:07 PM
Comment by: mac
to whomever, whoever that is:
i couldn't finish reading. i could see my investment would not bring substantial returns.
Sunday February 17th 2013, 5:57 PM
Comment by: Booka (SC)
Rain! Thank you!
Sunday February 17th 2013, 7:36 PM
Comment by: Rain
Booka, you're welcome. How many of us know an ISOC (in-situ subject of an object clause) from our sock drawer, anyway?
Wednesday February 20th 2013, 9:43 PM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
good grammar
I find it a very sexy attribute !

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