We’ve become used to hearing the over-correction of “you and me” to “you and I”: She’s hosting the party for you and I … He’s just like you and I. I think of it as a case of grammatical positive discrimination – or linguistic political correctness: if you’ve been rapped over the knuckles once too often for uttering an apparently illegal phrase (you and me”), without understanding when and why those three words sometimes do work legitimately in that order, you might err on what you think is the side of grammatical correctness, defaulting to a Pavlovian avoidance of an oft-forbidden phrase.
There’s a new over-correction going on in Whoville, and that’s the increasingly frequent incorrect use of whomever in the place of whoever. What is it about that little ‘m’ in the middle of the word that makes people feel so grammatically lofty? Whomever is the new you and I; it’s bandied about with the same lack of understanding of the subject-object issue at the heart of the matter, and in the mistaken belief that inserting an ‘m’ is invariably but unaccountably more grammatically correct.
“Whomever wants this apple can have it” is clearly wrong. Whomever is used only to refer to the object of the verbal sentence or phrase – ie. the person ‘on the receiving end’ of the verb. The only word in this sentence that can be identified – by any stretch of the imagination – as an object is the apple, not the person wanting or having it.
We can be more forgiving when we start moving into more murky and dangerous waters: when whoever (or, wrongly, whomever) becomes the subject of a clause that is in itself the object of a sentence. Take these examples below.
1) Incorrect: “We will support whomever wins the Presidential election.” Correct: “We will support whoever wins the Presidential election.”
At first glance, whomever seems to be the object of the sentence – the person whom we will support. However, “whoever wins the Presidential election” is a single person or grammatical ‘package’ – an ‘object clause’; and within that clause – which is itself the object of our support – there is an unequivocal subject (whoever/any person) who is doing the winning. Therefore whoever takes the subjective rather than objective (whomever) form.
2) Incorrect: “We will support whoever the country elects as President.” Correct: “We will support whomever the country elects as President.”
In this case, the person elected is still the object of our support, contained in the object clause. However, this time, within the object clause (“whomever the country elects as President”), the subject is the country; it is not the whoever/any person who is doing the electing. And therefore whomever takes its objective form within the clause.
“And so, all ended well for both Horton and Whos, and for all in the jungle, even kangaroos. So let that be a lesson to one and to all; a person is a person, no matter how small.”