Q: I often see the use of “whomever” as an object in a subordinate clause like “whomever he chooses.” I can see the logic of this, but it feels awkward to me. Is it because I grew up surrounded by grammatical laxity that “whomever” seems like a neologism born of pedantry? Was it already established as correct English before my time?
A: If “whomever” seems awkward to you, its stuffier sidekick “whomsoever” must strike you as even more awkward. The roots of both pronouns, as well as of “whom” itself, go back to Anglo-Saxon times, though it looks as if all three may be on the way out.
In Old English, the language was much more inflected than it is now—that is, words changed their forms more often to show their functions. You can see this in some of the forms, or declensions, of hwa, the ancestor of “who,” “whom,” and “what.”
When used for a masculine or feminine noun, as we use “who” and “whom” today, the Old English forms were hwa (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwone or hwæne (direct object). When used for a neuter noun, as we use “what” today, the forms were hwæt (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwæt (direct object).
As for “whoever” and “whomever,” the two terms ultimately come from swa hwa swa, the Old English version of “whoso,” and swa hwam swaswa, the early Middle English rendering of “whomso.”
An Old English speaker would use swa hwa swa (literally “so who so”) much as we would use “whoever” and “whosoever.” And his Middle English-speaking descendants would use swa hwam swaswa (“so whom soso”) as we would use “whomever” and “whomsoever.”
Here’s an early “whoso” example that we’ve found in King Alfred’s Old English translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “swa hwa swa wille dioplice spirigan mid inneweardan mode æfter ryhte” (“whoso would deeply search with inner mind after truth”).
And here’s a “whomso” citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from a 12th-century document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Þæt hi mosten cesen of clerchades man swa hwam swaswa hi wolden to ercebiscop” (“that they could choose from the secular clerks whomso they wished as archbishop”).
“Whosoever” (hwase eauer) and “whoever” (hwa efre) also first appeared writing in the 12th century, while “whomever” (wom euer) showed up in the 14th century and “whomsoever” (whom-so-euyr) followed in the 15th.
The first OED citation for “whoever,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English sermon in the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175):
“Hwa efre þenne ilokie wel þene sunne dei. oðer þa oðer halie daʒes þe mon beot in chirche to lokien swa þe sunne dei. beo heo dalneominde of heofene riches blisse” (“Whoever looks well on Sunday and on the other holy days that man must also be in church, then he shall participate in the heavenly kingdom’s bliss”).
The dictionary’s earliest example for “whomever” is from Arthour and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wom euer þat he hitt, Þe heued to þe chinne he slitt” (“Whomever he hit, he beheaded, to the chin he slit”). Arthurian legends can get gory at times.
So as you can see, “whomever” was indeed established in English before your time—quite a few centuries before.
As for the use of these terms today, you can find “whoso” and “whomso” in contemporary dictionaries, but they’re usually labeled “archaic,” while “whosoever” and “whomsoever” are generally described as formal versions of “whoever” and “whomever.”
“Who,” of course, is still one of the most common pronouns in English, but “whom” and company are falling out of favor, and many usage writers now accept the use of “who” and “whoever” for “whom,” “whomever,” and “whomsoever” in speech and informal writing.
As Jeremy Butterfield puts it in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “In practice, whom is in terminal decline and is increasingly replaced by who (or that), especially in conversational English, in which in most cases it would be inappropriately formal.”
Butterfield’s recommendation: “Despite exceptions, the best general rule is as follows: who will work perfectly well in conversation (except the most elevated kind) and in informal writing.” The main exception he notes is that “who” should not be used for “whom” right after a preposition.
Traditionally, as you know, “who” (like the Old English hwa) is a subject, and “whom” (like hwam) is an object. As Pat explains in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, “who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him).”
Pat recommends the traditional usage in formal writing, but she has a section in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I on how to be whom-less in conversation and informal writing:
A Cure for the Whom-Sick
Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing—personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.
Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.
A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.
[Note: The reader who sent us this question responded, “Your example involving a Caribbean cruise seems fraught with danger in these pan(dem)icky times. If a colleague were to tell me that, my first instinct would be to ask, ‘Who would dare?’ ”]