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Using Whoever vs Whomever

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

There is a common misconception that 'whomever' is more formal than 'whoever,' but in fact, neither word is 'better' or more formal. Instead, the words do different jobs, as 'whoever' is used for the subject of sentences and 'whomever' is used for objects.

More Formal?

Have you ever had an annoying grammar stickler correct you for saying 'whoever?' 'Whomever is the more formal and correct way to speak,' they might say. Well, it turns out they are totally wrong. And after this lesson, you will be able to tell them off the next time they try to correct you.

The difference between 'whoever' and 'whomever' has nothing to do with formality. Grammatically, they are the same, but are just used for different purposes. The decision on which one to use just has to do with the word's placement in a sentence.

Relative Pronouns

The first thing to know about 'whoever' and 'whomever' is that they are part of a class of words called relative pronouns. You might already know that pronouns are words that take the place of nouns in a sentence (like 'he,' 'she,' 'it,' etc). But relative pronouns are a special class that introduces a phrase or clause that describes the noun. For example:

  • The job will go to whomever is most qualified.
  • Whoever gets to the finish line first will win the race.

In the first example, 'whomever' introduces 'is most qualified,' which explains more about the noun. Similarly, in the second example 'gets to the finish line' explains more about the pronoun 'whoever.'

Subject and Object

So, now that we know 'whoever' and 'whomever' are relative pronouns, the question becomes: why are there two of them, since they do basically the same thing? To understand this, we have to talk about the subject and object of a sentence.

The subject of a sentence is the the person, place, or thing doing the action. The object is the thing receiving the action or having the action done to it. So, let's look at this sentence:

  • Jack punched Trevor.

In this sentence, 'Jack' is doing the punching, so he is the subject, and 'Trevor' is getting punched, so he is the object. 'Whoever' is the pronoun that is used to replace the subject in a sentence. In this way, it is like other pronouns like he, she, and who. 'Whomever' replaces objects, like the pronouns him, her, and whom.

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