The Grammarphobia Blog

‘Whatever’ or ‘what ever’?

Q: Is the one-word or two-word form correct here? Or are both correct? If not, which is preferred? And why? (1) Whatever happened to so-and-so? (2) What ever happened to so-and-so?

A: The compound words formed with the adverb “ever” were originally two separate words, though today they’re nearly always written as one: “whoever,” “however,” “wherever,” and so on.

But in the case of “what” + “ever,” you have a choice when asking a question. “Whatever” is more common, but “what ever” is also used to underscore the emphatic nature of “ever” (as in “What ever do you mean?” or “What ever could have happened?”).

Most standard dictionaries don’t include a separate entry for “what ever.” The few that do say “what ever” is more emphatic than “whatever.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, for example, says “what ever” is “used for emphasis in questions, typically expressing surprise or confusion,” and it gives this example: “What ever did I do to deserve him?”

The online Macmillan Dictionary says the two-word version is “used for emphasizing a question, especially when you are surprised or upset,” and gives this example: “What ever gave you that idea?”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has no separate entry for “what ever,” but mentions it in a usage note in its entry for “whatever”:

“Both whatever and what ever may be used in sentences such as Whatever (or What ever) made her say that? … In adjectival uses, however, only the one-word form is used: Take whatever (not what ever) books you need.”

We mention “whatever” (also “whatsoever”) in a 2011 post we wrote about similar two- and three-word compounds. Among the other words we discuss are “albeit,” “heretofore,” “inasmuch,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and “notwithstanding.”

Most of the “ever” combinations came along during the Middle English period—roughly from the late 11th to the late 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Although they started out as phrases, they’re now “usually” or “always” written as single words, depending on where you look in the OED.

As the dictionary explains, “ever” is used “following interrogative adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, and conjunctions (e.g. how, what, when, where, who, why), to intimate that the speaker has no idea of what the answer will be.”

So the “ever” in “whatever” lends emphasis to a question that could very well be asked with “what” alone. (In fact, “whatever” is sometimes called an emphatic interrogative pronoun.)

And the two-word “what ever,” which isolates and underscores the “ever” part of the compound, further accentuates the note of surprise, bewilderment, or disbelief.

The earliest “ever” compound, and the only one known to have existed in Old English, was the pronoun “whoever” (written hwa æfre), according to Oxford citations.

The others, along with the dates they first appeared, include the pronoun and adjective “whatever” (written “what euer,” early 1300s); the adverb “however” (“hou-euer,” c. 1380); the adverb and conjunction “whenever” (“whanne evere,” c. 1380), the adverb and conjunction “wherever” (“ware euere,” c. 1275); and the adverb “why ever” (1660), the only one still generally written as two words.

The OED’s earliest citation for “whatever” is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300: “But what euer he had in þouȝt” (“But whatever he had in thought”). Here the word is a pronoun introducing a clause.

Soon the compound was also being written as one word, as in this OED example: “Son, what may al this noys be … Whateuer sal it sygnyfy?” (From a manuscript of The Seuyn Sages that probably dates from around 1330.) Here the pronoun is interrogative.

The OED has many examples of both “whatever” and “what ever” over the centuries. And the two-word version is still around, as in this citation from Vanity Fair in November 2013: “What ever happened to style?”

“Whatever” is also used following a noun to mean something like “at all,” in which case it behaves like an adverb. The examples range from 1623 (“more withered and dry than … any other Tree whateuer”) to 1884 (“had no chance whatever”). In this usage, it’s always one word.

And as we all know, “whatever” is also used as an interjection in a sometimes dismissive way, as in “Yeah, whatever.”

Here’s how the OED defines this sense of the word: “Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker’s reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.”

Oxford labels the usage colloquial and says it originated in the US. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1965 episode of the TV series Bewitched.

As fans of the sitcom will recall, Samantha’s mother, Endora, persisted in mispronouncing her son-in-law’s name. Here’s the exchange cited in the OED:

Endora. “Good morning, Derwood.”
Samantha. “Darrin.”
Endora. “Whatever.”

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