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To Whomever It May Concern

I was gobsmacked the other day while watching an episode of the NBC series Crisis, which I would describe as my guilty pleasure except that I don’t feel especially guilty about it, and it’s not that pleasurable. Anyhow, the show is about bad guys who kidnap a school bus full of children of the rich and powerful, including the U.S. president’s son. A Secret Service agent and one kid, who you can tell is a genius because he’s a little chubby and has curly hair,

Joshua Erenberg and Lance Gross from “Crisis.” Photo by Vivian Zink/NBC

manage to escape, pursued by henchmen. Hiding out, the agent says something to the effect of, “I swear to you, I’m going to find whoever did this to us.”

Then the kid says (and this is the gobsmacked part), “Whomever.”

The OED has an elegant definition of whomever—“Any (one) whom”—and cites a 1920 line from Max Beerbohm: “To impose his will on whomever he sees comfortably settled.” (The title of this post would be another example.) There are a couple of other interesting things in the entry. The first is the OED‘s note that whomever is “less frequent” than whomsoever. That may seem surprising but is in fact true, or at least was true until about 1972, according to Google Ngram Viewer:

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The second thing is the dictionary’s second definition for whomever: “Misused for whoever as subject of relative clause preceded by a preposition.” There are two citations for this, the most recent from 1449, Reginald Pecock’s Repressor: “Y dare putte this into iugement of whom euer hath seen the pilgrimage doon.” And this brings us back to the Crisis line. The Crisis kid was advocating misusing whomever in exactly the same way Pecock did. That’s nothing remarkable, as we shall see in a minute. The awesome thing about the moment was the way it enshrined the mistake not only as a nonmistake, but as a nonmistake that is generally gotten wrong by poorly informed people.

To be sure, it’s very easy and understandable to misuse whomever. Consider that sentence from Crisis: “I’m going to find ____ did this to us.” We have a sense that find should take a noun in the objective rather than subjective case—him instead of he–and hence it seems right to use the objective whomever instead of the subjective whoever. But it’s not right, because the object of the sentence is the entire noun phrase clause [thanks, John Roth]: “whoever did this to us.”

The particular mistake, as my Lingua Franca colleague Lucy Ferriss noted in 2012, is on the upswing. I searched in Google Ngram Viewer for the phrases to whoever is (correct) and to whomever is (incorrect), and found that the latter doesn’t even appear until 1840, and then not again till 1891. But it rises steadily post-1900 and dramatically post-1960:

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Reliable Ngram Viewer data go up only to 2000, but I believe that since then, whomever abuse has dramatically increased. I searched Google News for the word, and the most recent 20 instances contained 13 wrong and seven right, an almost 2-1 margin. Among the wrongies were the usual sort of understandable suspects, e.g.:

  • “… essentially providing ‘fast lanes’ to whomever’s got the money.”
  • “The Jets need more weapons on offense for whomever will play QB.”
  • “Those rights could come in handy for whomever ends up buying the site next door.”
  • “You play as a furball with a mustache who is looking for whomever stole your fortune.”

But also showing up was a kind of error that I’ve noticed more and more and that has no such justification. One example is an April 23 article from a website called MWC News, which has this line: “whomever takes up the presidential position would need the informal backing of major regional and international players.” Another is from a sports blog called Causeway Crowd: “While we’re waiting to see if the Bruins or the Red Wings move to the next round, we know that whomever advances will be facing the Montreal Canadiens.”

What has brought about the deep yearning to use whomever, especially wrongly? I believe it’s an impulse that can be seen in other language trends, such as using myself instead of I or me,  or favoring such strangely old-fashioned formulations as amongst, oftentimes, and a person that (instead of a person who). What they share is a stiff formality that’s puzzling, given what we’re told and observe about the rise of online slang and text-speak, and also given this mode of expression is most common among the young. Puzzling, but definitely there.

Whomever can tell me where it comes from, I am all ears!

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