When Is a Rule Not a Rule?

I often answer language questions on Quora.com. Here’s a question that comes up again and again: What are some rules that hardly anybody obeys anymore?

I have a nomination – a rule I think we should just get rid of altogether: having to know the difference between who and whom and whoever and whomever.

You should just use who and whoever – even if you’re an English teacher or a professional writer. The pros seem to struggle with this one just as much as high school students do. Begone!

Here’s an example from a September 3, 2019 article about Marianne Williamson in the New York Times Magazine:

“She ministered to whomever was listening – her readers, her congregants, the people who traveled to listen to her, people who live streamed her – in the language of self-help, which is the language we are mostly all fluent in right now.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Here’s the correct sentence:

“She ministered to whoever was listening – her readers, her congregants, the people who traveled to listen to her, people who live streamed her – in the language of self-help, which is the language we are mostly all fluent in right now.”

Here’s a quick way to figure it out: “he was listening” – “who was listening” – “whoever was listening.” Or, if you want to get all grammatical about it, you can say that “whoever” is the subject of a noun clause. But you don’t need that gobbledygook.

Still doubting me? Compare this sentence, which uses whomever correctly:

“She ministered to whomever he persuaded to enter the shelter.”

Now you really do need whomever: “he persuaded him” – “he persuaded whom” – “he persuaded whomever.” You can feel that m (him, whom, whomever) in your mouth. Or, if you want to get all grammatical about it, “whomever” is the object of a noun clause.

But – again – you don’t need that gobbledygook. Just use who and whoever 100% of the time.

What if you’re sure you know how to use whom and whomever correctly? Well, Taffy Brodesser-Akner – who wrote that article for the New York Times Magazine – was sure she got it right, wasn’t she? And the editor at the magazine who approved the article thought that sentence was right too. But it wasn’t.

If you need another reason for ignoring that useless rule, here it is: you’ll never make mistakes like “the editor whom approved the article” and “I didn’t know whom was coming to the party.” Gack!

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2 thoughts on “When Is a Rule Not a Rule?

  1. AvatarElizabeth Fike

    Hi Jean! It’s great to know that I can just forget about using “whom” and “whomever”. They always feel awkward to me, and I’m sure I’ve used them incorrectly. I’ll just make things easy and use “who” and “whoever” instead. Thanks for another great tip. Lisa

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