Okay, I’ll admit it: I love grammar. I particularly love getting it right. When I was in high school about two and a half centuries ago I really enjoyed diagramming sentences. I could probably still do it, and I’d take some pleasure from it, too.
Like anyone with a passion about something, I do have my pet peeves on the subject–misuses that particularly annoy me. Don’t you?
One of the grammatical errors that I especially love to hate is the misuse of “whoever” and “whomever”. I once almost got fired over this. Really.
The incident occurred when I worked as a director of a software delivery and customization organization inside a fast-growing software product company. I was asked to review a brochure about our services that had been drafted by a young man who worked as a contract writer in the marketing department. The precise offending sentence has long been forgotten, but it was structurally similar to the following:
Our company’s services are indispensable to whomever wants up-to-date Web-site information.
Naturally, I corrected “whomever” to “whoever”, but the young writer didn’t make the change.
This went on for two revisions. I took the trouble to quote Garner’s Modern American Usage and other sources, all of which he ignored. After all, he was the expert on writing, not me. I was the software manager, and what do software managers know about English? Obviously–nothing. Finally, I lost my cool. I wrote him a scathing note about the importance of professional writers using correct grammar. He retaliated by complaining to his manager about me. (He showed her my final note, but not all the correspondence that led up to it.)
Despite the fact that I was correct on the matter and he unwilling to listen, I was the one who got the reprimand. The grounds, quite correctly, were that as a senior manager in the organization, I had acted unprofessionally toward a non-management worker. The fact that I was right had no impact on the matter. I kept my job only because I had my own evidence. I was able to show to what lengths I had gone to try to work with him before losing my cool.
In my part of the organization at least, we all cheered when the young man was finally let go.
That was a long time ago, and I really do hope that the young writer has since then learned the very simple rule that applies to “whomever” and “whoever”.
The error that he made was one of overcorrecting. He correctly noted that the “who(m)ever wants information” clause of the sentence was the object of the preposition “to”, and so he used “whom” (as in “to whom it may concern”). However, “who(m)ever” plays a role in the dependent clause also, as subject of the clause. And this role trumps the relationship with the preposition.
Garner puts it this way: Look at whatever grammatically follows (not preceeds) the “ever”. If it’s the verb of the following clause, use “whoever”. If it’s not the verb, use “whomever”. If you are in doubt, don’t overcorrect. Stick with “whoever”.
I learned an even simpler rule that accomplishes the same result: Substitute “the person who” or “the person whom” for “whoever” or “whomever”, and see how it sounds. The correct structure immediately becomes obvious. “Our company’s services are indispensable to the person who wants up-to-date information.” Not “the person whom wants the information.” Whoever, not whomever.
No question. No argument. No reprimand.
Do you have a favorite grammatical peeve, dear reader? Or a point of grammar that has always confused you? Please let me know. I will be happy to clear things up. I’d bet my Strunk & White on it.