Monday 17 March 2008

On who(m)ever

A correspondent writes to ask why we can say Give it to whoever has the money alongside Give it to him who has the money. Shouldn't it be Give it to whomever has the money. And don't people sometimes write Give it to he who has the money?

The problem is that people have been overinfluenced by the artificial rules of prescriptive grammarians. Let's take he/him first. The basic rule in standard English (it's different in some regional dialects) is clear-cut: a form takes the objective case (if one exists) following a preposition. So it always has to be Give it to him not Give it to he. By extension, we have ... to him who... If the prescriptivists had left the language alone, there would have been no problem. But they didn't.

It started with the insistence that the Latin rule should be followed after the verb to be, so that one should say It is I rather than It is me. The English language has always followed its own non-Latin path, in this respect: It's me has always been the norm, and the same applies to the other pronouns. But the prescriptivists taught generations of kids that only forms such as I were correct. This immediately set up a mental conflict: the fact that everyone naturally used me suggested that this was a correct use of English, but here were grammarians saying that it was wrong. The result was that people who were trying to speak and write in a way that would be called educated (by the grammarians) found themselves forced to do something unnatural. They managed it, of course (otherwise they would have failed their exams), but at the expense of making them worry for the rest of their lives about other constructions where there was a choice between subjective and objective (also called nominative and accusative) pronouns. It's the objective form they chiefly worried about. Maybe me/him/her/us/them are always wrong? Maybe I should avoid them whenever I think to use them? As a result, we find the natural between you and me becoming the unnatural between you and I (one would never say between I and you), and such sentences as Give it to him who has the money becoming Give it to he who has the money. Both forms now exist.

Meanwhile, a second process was underway. Many English words and constructions express a contrast between formality and informality. A famous one in grammar is the choice between contracted and uncontracted forms (You are not vs You aren't). Another is the choice between who and whom: This is the man who I was talking to vs This is the man to whom I was talking. The prescriptive grammarians came down hard in favour of whom and against who, despite the fact that the latter was widespread in speech. So once again there was a mental conflict: people said one thing but the grammarians said it should be another. My correspondent mentions Fowler, and it is worth recalling that the avoidance of the end-placed preposition is one of the things Fowler calls a 'cherished superstition', maintained only by those who have been 'overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards' (in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage). Pedants nonetheless ignored Fowler's wise advice, kept insisting on whom, and as a result many people, unclear what the grammarians were on about, started using whom in places where it should be who and vice versa. We find such sentences as This is the author whom I know is interesting.

Finally, we get to whoever. English has such sentences as Whoever knows the answer should shout it out as well as the intensifying Who ever would have thought it! Note that whom is not possible in these cases. We also find such sentences as I asked whoever knew the answer to shout it out, where whoever is the subject of knew and the whole clause whoever knew the answer is the object of ask. It is the uncertainty over who/whom which makes people sometimes think the form should be whomever in such sentences. But the sentence does not analyse like this:

I asked whoever / knew the answer/ to shout it out

but like this:

I asked /whoever knew the answer / to shout it out (cf. I asked / him / to shout it out)

That is why we have Give it to whoever has the money. The whoever form here is the subject of has not the object of to:

Give it to /whoever has the money. (cf. Give it to him)

Having said all that, the fact is that the prescriptive influence has been strong, so that many people (I have no idea how many) have begun to treat the contrast between whoever and whomever like that between who and whom. For them, Give it to whoever has the money is informal, and Give it to whoever has the money is formal. Similarly, Give it to he who has the money is formal, and Give it to him who has the money is informal. It will be interesting to see whether this relatively new stylistic distinction survives once the prescriptive legacy disappears entirely.


Anonymous said...

Hey, I was just browsing through some of your blogs, which are great! It's a fabulous idea to post miscellaneous observations as you do.

Was thinking about the who(m)ever blog and wondering why people are tempted to say "(give to..)he who has the money." I think you must be right in suggesting that people fall under the influence of the prescriptive grammarians think the subjective pronoun almost always the right one.

But I also think it has to do with the proximity of the personal pronoun and the relative one. "he/him/ is immediately followed by "who" in the subjective case. So for some people it (viz. the personal pronoun) may get "attracted" into the same case.

My question is this: can't the question be resolved as simply as this:

It must be "give it to him who has the money" because "him" is the complement of the preposition "to" and "who" is the subject of "has". The mistake is to think that "he/him" is the subject of "has". But it ISN'T the subject of "has" (since, as was just said, "who" is the subject of "has"). "him" belongs, as it were, to the preposition "to" and "who" belongs to the verb "has". And both pronouns get their case from the item to which they belong.

Long-winded (unnecessarily, I fear) but isn't this a fair explanation of why it is " him who has"?

DC said...

Interesting. A sort of concord of proximity... You're implying that the 'pull' between the pronoun and who is stronger than the pull between it and to. That would suggest that people are thinking of the sentence like this:

Give / it / to / X who has the money.

In other words, is being processed as the complement of to. This would certainly motivate the use of he. You still have to explain why some people go one way, and some the other, of course - which is where my post comes in.

Anonymous said...

thank you for the reply. Yes I think the juxtaposition of "he/him" and "who" weighs more heavily with some people than that of "he/him" and "to". But you're right to point out that this doesn't explain why others say "him".

There's an article by a chap called Saphire (which I found by doing a google search on the proverbs: "All things come to him who waits" and "Let he who is without sin"). I think it should be "him" in both instances, and so, I think, does Saphire. But "objections" are sent to SAphire. One chap thinks (as you yourself suggested people think) that the complement of the preposition is all of "he who waits" in "All things come to he/him who waits." This objector also says that the subject of "waits" is "he who". But this is where my earlier post comes in. Surely this objector is just plain wrong. The subject of "waits" in the proverb is NOT "he who". It is JUST "who." The personal pronoun is governed by the preposition. IT doesn't somehow stick to "who" and form a sort of compound subject - "he who..."

The link for the online SAphire article is this:

Anyway, I wonder whether you can confirm that the subject of "waits" in the proverb is JUST "who" (and not "he who" together). And if this is so, isn't that enough to settle the issue from a grammatical point of view? IN other words: "he/him" is the complement of the preposition, hence its objective case "him." "who" is the subject of "waits" hence its subjective case. End of story. No?

Anyway, you can have a look at the Saphire article if you like. Somewhere in it there is a brief discussion of the descriptive/prescriptive issue that you write about. I think Saphire's point is that there is a danger of being too permissive.

Anyway, thanks for your reply. I took a lot from it!

DC said...

William Safire's (note the spelling) column is always a good place to look to find views on usage issues.

Certainly, the analysis I go for is the one you summarise at the end of your post. But you say 'settle the matter'? Not necessarily. A particular grammatical analysis maks sense only within the overall theoretical frame of reference of which it is a part. A different approach could take a very different line.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, my spelling was very careless. I meant to write Safire, yes!

And thanks for all the interesting observations. I suppose I'll have to content myself with the fact that a distinguished linguist and grammarian (you!) agrees with me in thinking that "he/him" is the complement of the preposition, and "who" the subject of "has" (hence their respective cases).

Anyway, I enjoyed the exchange and will be returning to this wonderful blog!

Anonymous said...

Hello. Hope it's not too late to add something to this post. I've read through it all, including the comments and your replies and just want to get something clear, if I may. You seem to be suggesting that one of the reasons people are misled into writing "whomever" instead of "whoever" is that they don't realize that it's the WHOLE clause that functions as the complement of the preposition, not just the pronoun. I think I get this point.

But I was just having a browse on wikipedia (not an authority on grammar, I know, but I wanted to see what I could find). I typed in "who(m)ever" and found a suprising remark. They give as an example of correct usage the following:

"Whomever you meet there is bound to be interesting"

Then they say (rightly, I assume) that the pronoun is in the OBJECTIVE case ("whoMever") because it is the object of the verb "meet". So far so good. This seems consistent with your analysis and the comments that follow on this blog note. BUt then WIkipedia goes on to say that "whomever" is ALSO THE SUBJECT OF "is". That struck me as being a very surprising thing to say. IN fact, it seemed completely false. If I've learnt anything from your blog it's surely that it's the WHOLE clause that serves as the subject of "is" in the sentence on wikipedia. It's not just the "whomever" that's the subject (indeed, how COULD it be the subject when it's in the objective case!). So isn't Wikipedia misleading people completely when it says that "whomever" is both the object of "meet" and the subject of "is"?

Anonymous said...

I have a question about a supposedly incorrect "whom" in relative clauses. Apparently they're known a push-down relatives. I find such examples in every single grammar/usage book I know of. I'll make one up:

(1) I am writing to Davod Crystal, whom I believe is working on a new book

I understand that "whom" is considered to be wrong here because it is NOT the object of "believe" but rather the subject of "is". But then what on earth is the "I believe" doing in the sentence? Does it have an object? I don't know if I can fully accept the usual (or at least fairly common) verdict that "I believe" is a "parenthetical remark" here. I think Fowler gives an example or two where the clause in the "I believe" / "they say" position simply cannot be called parenthetical. So what is the real reason why "who" is the subject of "is" and NOT the object of "believe"?

I hope you can sort this out for me. It's been a longstanding problem in my mind!

DC said...

Well yes, of course it is (misleading). But is that so surprising? This is Wikipedia, after all! You say 'Wikipedia ... says', but this is to give a spurious authority to an entry which could have been written by anyone, with who-knows-what awareness of grammatical issues.

This is a restrictive postmodification, so the whole thing has to be taken as the subject, if meaning is to be respected. I imagine the writer is trying to analyse whomever as the head of the noun phrase - an analysis which is only plausible if the form is whoever.

DC said...

Re the post with the whom example about Davod Crystal: this is plainly parenthetical. I don't know why you say you can't accept this analysis - you don't say. But there is no problem omitting the I believe here, without affecting the core meaning, so it has to be parenthetical. If there are fuzzy examples, these have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I wasn't satisfied by the "parenthetical analysis" because (1) it doesn't FEEL as if the remark is parenthetical. It feels as if it is integrated into the sentence. In other words, it feels as if it is somehow part of the clause, or perhaps introduces the clause (I don't know, maybe as a nominal clause with a suppressed "that", as in: "I think (that) who is working on a new book". Then this clause gets reordered because wh- words have to come at the beginning..."who I think (that) is working on a new book." ) I mean, if this remark is parenthetical, then why is it almost written without commas? I am not inclined to write: "I am writing to David Crystal, who, I THINK, is working on a new book" And in pretty much all of the examples I find, the writer does not use commas. So the "parenthetical" element does not FEEL parenthetical. The second reason why I was dissatisfied with the parentical analysis is that it does not seem to apply to many of these so-called pushdown clauses. I take it that you'll say that it's not supposed to, and that a DIFFERENT analysis will need to be given for these cases. I suppose I can understand that, but it would be nice to have a more unified account of what the "I think", "you said" bit is doing in the sentence.

Fowler gives: "Jones, who I never thought was in the running, has won." I agree with Fowler that it does not make much sense to regard "I never thought" as parenthetical. The parenthetical bit in this sentence is the bit enclosed by commas (hence my question above that if "I think" is parenthetical, then why do we not enclose it with commas?). The grammarians tell us (Fowler chief among them!) that in Fowler's example "who" is the subject of "was", not the object of "thought". BUt I still don't see how "I never thought" features in the clause in that case. Does it have some other object?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ethan here (student) I've got a simple question, which is about "who". I was corrected the other day when I asked (before a tennis match): "who ARE playing?" My friend said it should be "who is playing?" I wasn't sure what to say. I agreed that there was a funny sound to "who are playing?" but I couldn't think why the plural was odd here, and why it should be the singular verb. After all, "...who are playing" sounds fine in a relative clause. SO why does it sound odd in an interrogative one? Thanks

DC said...

Feelings don't get us anywhere. I feel the opposite, that it is parenthetical. Punctuation is neither here nor there - commas are not a systematic guide to syntax, as they partly reflect phonetic considerations, and should never be taken as a criterion on how to analyse something in speech. To resolve the issue, we have to rely on syntactic criteria, and if a string is omissible (as this one is) it can hardly be called integrated.

In the 'I never thought' example, you are using parenthetical in a much broader sense. On this basis, adjectives before nouns are parenthetical, and so are adverbs, and the kind of relative clause you illustrate, etc., and the term becomes useless. I was using the term in the narrow sense of parenthetical disjunct - what the Quirk grammar calls 'comment clauses'.

The nature of the meaning relationship between the parenthesized item and the rest of the sentence is a variable. The Fowler example simply shows a comment clause where the meaning of the parenthesized item is more prominent in relation to the interpretation of the sentence as a whole. It is, pace Fowler, a parenthetical item nonetheless. The core meaning is 'Jones, who was in the running, has won'. The fact that the speaker might never have thought this is a quite separate issue. You could, after all, replace this by a correspondingly emphatic adverb, such as 'unbelievably'.

Anonymous said...

Ok. I'm still not sure how the so-called parenthetical bit gets into the sentence. I'm taking it that you think it's just an add-on (or a "comment-clause" and not integrated into the structure of the relative clause. In other words "I believe" simply doesn't HAVE an object in the sentence. It has just been inserted into the sentence, and has no syntactic relationship with "who/m" and "is working on a new book". Please do correct me if this is not what you meant.

Thanks for the feedback. Will think about the idea that punctuation is not a good guide to syntactic structure

DC said...

Your last post is going off topic, and needs a separate response. Please keep posts to the point- and, if at all possible, keep follow-ups (if any) to a single post, as it's otherwise going to be difficult for me to maintain this blog.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I'm thinking about your idea that the prescriptive legacy influences people so much that they opt for the more stilted sounding form (well, that may be a misrepresentation or simplification of what you say, but I actually subsribe to the idea entirely).

Do you think that the same thing (viz. the hypercorrection due to the prescriptivist influence) occurs in cleft-sentences like:

"It was she you wanted"

You mention in a reply to one of the posts above that there is a prescriptive rule that subject and subject complement must be in the same case. Applying this rule would give us "she" in the above sentence.

BUt then there's the "you wanted" part, the object of which is presumably an ellipted "whom":

It was she (whom) you wanted

I'm not sure what the "correct" case of the personal pronoun is here, so I guess I'm wondering what you think it should be and whether any prescriptivist strictures affect people's decision (of the case of pronoun).


DC said...

There is genuine usage uncertainty in such cases, as the pronoun is being pulled in two directions. On the whole, the subjective form wins: it is ten times more likely to be she than her, or I than me, according to Google (type in "it was she who" vs "it was her who"), six times more likely for they rather than them, and three times more likely for he rather than him. The subjective form is probably reinforced because when the element is subject of the following verb, as opposed to object (as in your example), there is no real issue - It was her who did it would be generally discountenanced in standard English. For a discussion, see the big Quirk grammar, section 6.5.

Anonymous said...

re. the rule for Standard English (which you state in your original post)may I just ask a quick question?

You said that the rule was that a form takes the accusative case following a preposition. But when a pronoun follows a preposition and is itself postmodified by a relative clause as in the original example ( him who has the money) do we say that "him" is the complement/object of the preposition "to"? or do we say that the complement/object of the preposition is "him who has the money"? (i.e. the whole noun phrase)

Was just wondering whether the postmofication affects the standard rule. I'm assuming it doesn't. If a pronoun follows (and is "governed" by) a preposition, then it goes into the accusative case, even if it is postmodified by a relative clause. But is it "loose" or "inaccurate" to say that the pronoun is the object of the preposition (rather than the whole noun phrase)?

DC said...

The postmodification won't affect the case of the pronoun. And in terms of clause analysis, the whole of the construction would be taken as the governed unit. The pronoun is simply the head of the construction.

I've encountered both usages. When we get sentences like I saw a red ball, people say both ball is the object of saw and the red ball is the object of saw - but never red is the object of saw. Strictly, the whole noun phrase is the object.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I too have a question about the rule you cited in your post and about the influence of the prescriptivists.

As is well known, there's been a debate about the correct case of the pronoun after "than" in comparisons for a very long time indeed:

"She is older than I/ than me?"

Am I right in thinking that if one regards "than" as a preposition, then the application of the rule you mentioned sanctions (indeed necessitates) "me" here? I take it that the prescriptivists say that it is a conjunction that introduces an ellipted clause. But then the argument seems to be no more than: A: "it's a conjunction" B: "No! it's a preposition." Bare assertions.

More interesting is the following example though:

"Everyone other than she/her arrived."

What would the prescriptivists say here? It seems they can't rely on their trusty "it's a conjunction" argument. "than" in the above "everyone..." sentence clearly doesn't introduce an ellipted clause, so it doesn't seem right to call it a conjunction. Does that mean that it has to be a preposition in this sentence? If it does, then presumably the simple rule you stated makes the objective case a "must", i.e. "Everyone other than HER arrived."

And yet, I have seen such sentences with subjective case pronouns. Is this too the influence of the prescriptivists? And do they have a leg to stand on in this latter case? I mean, if it isn't a conjunction (since it doesn't introduce a clause) then presumably it's a preposition. And if it's a preposition, then according to the rule you state it HAS to be objective case.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

DC said...

There's no difference here, other than that introduced by the word order. If you rephrase as 'Everyone arrived, other than Mary', you can see that the issue is similar to "She is older than Mary' - 'Everyone arrived other than Mary did'. I guess the usage issue arises because when people put the phrase earlier in the sentence the pronoun quandary comes with it.

The conjunction/preposition alternatives aren't just a function of a prescriptivist mindset. It's a genuine analytical problem, whether to argue for an underlying ellipted clause or not.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Give it to him who has the money becoming Give it to he who has the money...

I haven't heard those two examples before -- or, at least, I haven't noticed them before -- but both feel quite awkward to me. Of them both, I prefer the sound of "Give it to he who has the money" (probably because of perceived "correctness", though; "he who" is easier to say, IMO).

I was wondering, then:

Give it to him *what* has the money -- is there a circumstance in which this would be correct?

When forming sentences like the two examples given, I take a delight in saying "her what has the..." or "Him what does the cooking...", etc., because it sounds "wrong", and thus quite playful and fun to use.

I've noticed a lot of friends and people my age do it, too.

Sorry to post so late on an older post, and I hope my comment made sense :)


DC said...

This relative pronoun use of what has a long history. You find it in Old English, in the phrase that what. There are some excellent citations in the OED (see what 7c), such as this one from Roger Ascham in 1568 - 'the matter what other men wrote'. But the usage was frowned upon by the prescriptive grammarians, who decided that only that was acceptable. The use of what then became non-standard. It continued to be widely used, though, and eventually became one of the commonest ways to represent nonstandard speech in literature. You find lots of examples in Dickens, for instance. And of course, many today will remember Ernie Wise's 'the play wot I wrote'. So it's certainly available for playful use. But I wouldn't put it into an exam answer!

DC said...

From Kate Gladstone:

There is a New Testament verse which (in the King James translation, at least) includes the words: "Let him who is without sin ... " (John 8:7). People who quote this correctly are usually ridiculed by those who feel sure that it must be "Let he who is without sin ... " At least once, when I showed the objecter/ridiculer that his own Bible (like others) gives "Let him ... ", he became quite irrationally irate: he KNEW the page couldn't say what he'd just seen it say!