The Grammarphobia Blog

May I help who’s next?

Q: Regardless of which Starbucks I go to, employees taking orders say, “May I help who’s next?” This may not be technically wrong, but it sounds awful! I’d say “May I help the next customer?” or “May I take your order?” or “Are you ready to order?”

A:You aren’t the first person who’s been startled to hear “May [or “Can”] I help who’s next?”

People waiting in line at a coffee shops, bakeries, bookstores, banks, and ice cream parlors are hearing this query across the United States and in parts of England, according to linguists.

But strictly speaking, this construction isn’t incorrect. As the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum has written on the Language Log, it’s merely outdated and no longer common in English usage.

That is, it’s no longer common except at Starbucks and other places where people wait in line. 

Pullum points out that what you’re hearing is “an isolated survival of an extinct construction type” that hasn’t been in common use for the last 50 to 100 years.

What’s happening is that “who” is being used as what linguists call a “fused relative.”

In this construction, the single word “who” represents (or is fused into) the relative noun phrase “the person that.”

In modern usage, though, the pronoun of choice here is “whoever,” not “who.” 

This particular use of “who,” Pullum speculates, “seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment”—and you heard an example of it at Starbuck’s.

Pullum says he began hearing reports about this usage around 1990, especially from the Upper Midwest. But now, he says, it’s being heard all across the continent (presumably wherever people wait in line to be helped).

And it’s not just American. The linguist Lynne Murphy, who teaches at the University of Sussex, reports on her blog that she’s heard “Can I help who’s next?” from clerks and shop assistants in the south of England. 

Pullum admits that this use of “who” is odd. He calls it “something that is almost grammatical and used to be fully grammatical.”

The use of “who” in this manner “has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years,” he says. The construction “survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.”

On the other hand, he says, “whoever” is “freely used” this way in contemporary English.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the relative use of “who” to mean “any one that” or “whoever” is now considered “archaic” or “literary.” The OED’s examples of the usage date from the 1200s to the late 1890s.

The dictionary includes two examples from Shakespeare, probably written about 1600: “Let it be who it is” (Julius Caesar), and “Who steales my purse, steals trash” (Othello). 

Later citations include this line from Robert Browning’s poem Balaustion’s Adventure (1871): “I passionately cried to who would hear.”

And this one is from Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892): “Who rides at the tail of a Border thief, he sits not long at his meat.”

So why are we hearing this old construction again? This is a legitimate question, but there’s no simple answer.

No one’s suggesting that baristas and bank tellers revived the construction after reading Shakespeare or Kipling. But, as Pullum says, this isn’t a matter of ignorance, either:

“It’s about the grammatical possibility of human-referring fused relatives,” he says, “and the complexity of the picture we face when a single language is in use by a billion people with dates of birth spread over about a century.”

It’s also, he adds, “about the odd survivals and exceptions that can lurk in the syntactic patterns found in everyday use.”

By the way, we once wrote a post about a similar, commonly heard expression, “May I help the following customer?”

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