Monday 5 February 2007

On The Archers, whatever

I hardly believed the enquiry that came through the e-ther a couple of days ago. People were apparently getting into a bit of a grammatical muddle on The Archers' message-board and this was a plea for help.

Yes, I said The Archers! The Radio 4 series that began - oh, I dunno, around Chaucer's time. I had read about the series in the press recently, because of the fuss when it included a gay wedding in the script. I can understand listeners getting worked up over the show's politics, sexuality, religion... but grammar?

I was travelling at the time, but thanks to the invaluable blackberry I was able to send my correspondent a brief reply. When I got home I looked it up - on The Bull - and there indeed it was: a thread addressing the topic: 'What part of speech is whatever?' You'll find the thread at

'Was it an adverb?' asked the first post. It sent everyone scurrying to their dictionaries and grammars, and finding a variety of answers. Pronoun? Adjective? Interjection?

In fact, as with so many words in English, the answer is 'all of them'. Take round, which can be an adjective (the round table), a noun (it's your round), a verb (we rounded the bend), an adverb (we went round), and a preposition (round the corner). Whatever is just as complicated.

In sentences like Whatever happened? it's a pronoun. Pronouns take the place of noun phrases. Something happened. An explosion happened. This is also the usage when part of a sentence is omitted (is elliptical), as in Whatever next! (= 'Whatever will happen next?')

When this pronoun is used to introduce a clause, we get sentences like I love whatever she writes or Whatever he says will upset me. In the big Quirk grammar, constructions like this are called 'nominal relative clauses'.

When the word is used along with a noun, we can't call it a pronoun any more. Now it says something about the noun. Wear whatever dress you like. Words used like this (whichever and what are two more) were called 'adjectives' in some old grammars, but that isn't a good label because they don't act like adjectives in other ways. Today we would call them 'determiners' (like the and my), because they 'determine' the character of the noun - making it interrogative, in this case. It's an 'interrogative determiner', here.

It's used as an 'emphatic determiner' after a noun when there is a negative word before it, as in: They had no reason whatever to leave. Whatsoever and at all do the same job.

In informal speech, especially in recent years, a usage has grown up in which the relative clause has been shortened, so that only the pronoun is left. We'll go by bus or train or whatever (= 'or whatever else might be available'). This then evolved further into We'll go by bus or train - whatever! Other words were being used in the same way. We'll go to Paris or Vienna or wherever (= 'wherever we can get cheap tickets'). Eventually, the wh- words came to be used on their own. Whatever! Wherever! And at that point, the distinction between pronoun (whatever) and adverb (wherever) became blurred. In a sentence like We'll go whatever, which I heard the other day meaning 'We'll go by bus or by train', then the force is adverbial.

Now when a word loses its original grammatical identity, and starts being used in an independent way, it no longer makes sense to talk about it as a part of speech. Lots of words are like this. What part of speech is Thanks? or Hi! or Hello? They are really acting like mini-sentences, but without the sort of grammatical structure we usually find in a sentence. Modern grammars sometimes call them 'minor sentences'. Dictionaries have to give them some label, so they do - but it's a bit of a cheat, really, to talk about such words as parts of speech at all.

Whatever is one of the most recent words to achieve independent status in this way. It tends to be used as an exclamatory sentence with a summarising or dismissive force avoiding further explicitness. It's mainly a young person's usage - but not exclusively (I use it myself, and find it very useful at times). Because it often expresses an attitude, similar in effect to such words as phooey! it's actually very close to what the old grammars called an interjection.

All of this applies to speech. In writing there's an additional complication. When whatever is used as an intensifier (along with whoever, however, wherever, and all the -soever words - whatsoever, wheresoever, etc), there has been a trend to separate the ever from the first part: What ever did he mean? I think it was Fowler who first thought this was a good idea, suggesting that it drew attention to the emphasis, and several people followed his lead. But I've just looked at three modern dictionaries, and they all recommend that the word be set solid. Usage remains divided, though, thanks to Fowler!

Whatever is a complicated little word, with lots of uses (I may not have thought of them all!), and I'm not surprised people got into a muddle. But I'm delighted to see the issue surfacing in a series like this. This is real life, indeed. Archers' script writers, take note. Religion? Politics? Sex? Violence? Give 'em some grammar. That'll keep 'em listening.

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