19

Which of the below sentences is correct?

I shall challenge whoever approved of the decision.

I shall challenge whomever approved of the decision.

The reason for my uncertainty about whether 'whoever' or 'whomever' should be used is that there are two potential roles it could play here: it could either be the object of 'challenge', or the subject of the following clause ('_ approved of the decision').

3
  • 1
    Based not on grammar at all, whoever should be the default choice because so few native English speakers use whom on a regular basis. Google ngrams say that whoever is an order of magnitude more frequently used than whomever. Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 13:42
  • 6
    You forgot the third choice: whosoever -- as in I do now challenge whosoever dost approve decision thine. ;)
    – Cullub
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 19:42
  • 7
    @Cullub are you sure you don't mean whomsoever??? ;-)
    – mcalex
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 5:31

6 Answers 6

15

In this case, "whoever approved of the decision" is a noun clause. This clause itself is the object of "I shall challenge". The word 'whoever' must take its case from the role it plays in the noun clause, where it is the subject. It is not by itself the object of "I shall challenge", so it should not be placed in the objective case.

In my opinion, answers which state that both are correct, or that both are incorrect, are themselves incorrect.

====EDIT====

The phrase "who(m)ever approved of the decision" is a free relative clause, or a fused relative clause. That means it stands on its own without referring to a noun in another part of the sentence (as most relatives do). However, in such a construction, the compound relative pronoun "who(m)ever" still takes its case from its function in the embedded clause.

For an interesting discussion of this spurred by a quote from The Office, see this post by Literal-Minded, which uses "I'll kill whoever did this" as its example.

8
  • 3
    It's not a noun clause. It's a noun phrase in a fused relative construction. and thus could be analysed as the object of "challenge". It's called 'fused' because the pronoun is simultaneously head of the whole NP and subject in the relative clause. The meaning is comparable to that of the non-fused "I shall challenge the person who approved of the decision".
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 8:14
  • 1
    @BillJ, I think the main point of this answer is that the whole quoted thing (whatever its technical name might be) is the object of the whole sentence, but within that subsentence "whoever" plays the role of subject and should thus be written "whoever" and not "whomever" which would indicate it is the object of the subsentence.
    – hkBst
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 9:34
  • 2
    The issue is that there is a clash between the function of the whole NP and that of the relativised element, i.e. object of a verb and subject in the relative clause. The former demands accusative "whomever" while the latter demands nominative "whoever". That is the 'clash' that I'm referring to, or the 'quandary' as I called it in my answer. I would recommend that you study the grammar of 'fused' relatives before posting such answers.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 9:46
  • @BillJ I understand that point, but surely there must be a resolution to it? I believe this answer gives that resolution. (And it is not mine).
    – hkBst
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 9:48
  • I don't think there is an absolute answer. I would say that nominative "whoever" is preferable, but I'm not entirely sure why I feel that!
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 9:57
9

Style advice

From dictionary.com:

When to Use Whoever or Whomever

Whoever and whomever follow the he or him rule that also works with who and whom. This trick relies on the fact that him, whom, and whomever are all spelled with an M. If you can rephrase the sentence or respond to the question with him, you should use whom or whomever. You should use who or whoever if the sentence requires he.

Let's try that with "I shall challenge who(m)ever approved of the decision.":

I shall challenge who(m)ever approved of the decision.
I shall challenge him who approved of the decision. (maybe?)
I shall challenge he who approved of the decision. (maybe?)

Still hard to choose, so let's reorder a little bit:

Who(m)ever approved of the decision, I shall challenge.
Him who approved of the decision, I shall challenge. (clearly incorrect)
He who approved of the decision, I shall challenge. (correct)

Restoring the original order gives:

I shall challenge he who approved of the decision.

That means that the original sentence must use "whoever" and not "whomever":

I shall challenge whoever approved of the decision. (correct)
I shall challenge whomever approved of the decision. (incorrect)

But is this reordering valid? Well, let's try it on a simpler sentence:

I shall challenge him. (correct)
Him I shall challenge. (still correct)

Alternatively:

I shall challenge he. (incorrect)
He I shall challenge. (still incorrect)

So this simple reordering seems to preserve correctness and so can be used as I did above.

Sentence that changes meaning

Another way to approach this problem would be to construct a sentence which changes its meaning depending on which of whoever/whomever is used. What I have come up with is:

I shall challenge who(m)ever assured of victory.

So let's examine its two meanings. First the already familiar:

I shall challenge whoever assured of victory.
Whoever assured of victory I shall challenge.
I shall challenge the liar that assured of victory.

and the other is:

I shall challenge whomever assured of victory.
Assured of victory, I shall challenge whomever.
Being assured of my victory, I can challenge anybody without a second thought.

This demonstrates that "whoever" and "whomever" cannot be used interchangeably in such sentences, and that where only one of these sentences is meaningful, the other must thus be wrong.

6
  • Grammarians use dictionaries for meanings, not grammar. The source you cite omits to explain the 'clash' of grammatical case in examples like the OP's, as I explained in my answer. Note that there is no difference in meaning in the OP's example, whether the pronoun is "whoever" or "whomever".
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 11:10
  • +1 Maybe another example : I shall challenge (the person) who approved the decision. (correct). I shall challenge (the person) whom approved the decision (obviously incorrect). Here who/whoever and whom/whomever both work the same way, so this construction makes the distinction more obvious, I think.
    – J...
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 15:41
  • 1
    Another way to make that "I shall challenge" sentence less ambiguous would be to simply add a comma: "I shall challenge who(m)ever, assured of victory". This guarantees the 2nd interpretation regardless of which word you use. Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 18:46
  • Actually, "him who approved" is correct, not "he who approved." "Him" is the object of the sentence, and so it should be accusative. Moreover, you should be able to remove the "who" clause without hurting the grammar of the sentence, so "I shall challenge he (who approved of the decision)" is wrong, but "Him (who approved of the decision) I shall challenge" is correct. "He (who approved of the decision) I shall challenge" is also wrong. Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 6:14
  • @DarrelHoffman I think the comma is probably even required in the second interpretation. Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 6:20
4

I shall challenge who(m)ever approved of the decision.

Neither form is absolutely correct.

Both forms sound a little weird because the construction imposes competing but unsatisfiable requirements. On the one hand it must be nominative "whoever" because it's the subject of "approved", but on the other it must be accusative "whomever" because it's the object of "challenge", and it can't be both, so you have a quandary.

There's no way to get out of the quandary: you have to infringe one condition or the other. English is not well designed in this respect!

Nevertheless, "whoever" is preferable, but many would regard it as less than fully acceptable in formal style.

NOTE: the expression "who(m)ever approved of the decision" is called a 'fused' relative construction. It's not a clause but an NP (noun phrase) where the pronoun "who(m)ever" is simultaneously head of the whole NP and subject in the relative clause. It's comparable with the non-fused I shall challenge any person who approved of the decision.

4
  • 6
    I tend to agree. However, I find "whoever" to be the formal correct structure, and whomever to be a hypercorrect error. The focus in the subordinate clause should be on the subject of that clause, which is "whoever". The fact that it also plays a role fusing the subordinate clause into the main clause is secondary.
    – James K
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 20:23
  • 2
    @JamesK Would you agree with the second option at the bottom of my answer, then? That we avoid leaving the sentence with no object by simply calling the whole clause the object? Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 20:24
  • @JamesK Yes, "whoever" is preferable. Incidentally, "Who(m)ever approved of the decision" is not a clause but a noun phrase in a fused relative construction where "who(m)ever functions as both antecedent and relativised element.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 20:29
  • 1
    'but on the other it must be accusative "whomever" because it's the object of "challenge"' – Huh? What I learned is that in traditional grammar, the choice of "who" or "whom" in a relative clause depends entirely on the word's role in the relative clause, and that the word's role in the phrase surrounding the relative clause is completely irrelevant. So there are no competing requirements, there's no quandary, and "whoever" is absolutely correct. Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 11:32
2

We usually use "whoever" instead of "whomever", if applicable. This, therefore, means that the better-fitting sentence is:

I shall challenge whoever approved of the decision.

2
  • 1
    The OP asked for "correct" usage. I assume they don't care about what's colloquially more common ("whomever" is incredibly rare even when appropriate), and are just asking: "Should this pronoun be considered subjective or objective in this sentence?" Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 19:36
  • 2
    @AndyBonner: I’m not sure that’s a good assumption. The whole issue of calling such a rare usage “correct” is of course very artificial (and controversial), and most of the time, I think learners don’t have that distinction in mind. When you ask “is this correct” as a learner, you’re usually assuming that “correct” will coincide with “what a native speaker, speaking carefully, would say” — not meaning the former in distinction from the latter.
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 20:20
1

It is better to use 'whoever'. We can use 'whoever' as the subject of the following clause. We can also use 'whoever' as the object of 'challenge'. (I shall challenge + object. In place of 'object' we can write 'whoever' or 'whoever approved of the decision'. )

We usually use 'Whoever', not whomever, as an object. 'Whomever' is used in a very formal style.

'Whomever' is usually used immediately after prepositions. (...to whomever etc.)

[ subject- 𝘄𝗵𝗼, object- 𝐰𝐡𝐨𝐦,

subject- He, object- him,

I know the man. He came here last Monday. I know the man who came here last Monday. 'Who' joins two clauses together. 'Who' is the subject of the second clause. We use 'who' in the same way as 'he'.

This is Mr. Farukh. You met him a few hours ago. This is Mr. Farukh whom you met a few hours ago. 'Whom' joins two clauses together. 'Whom' is the object of the second clause. We use 'whom' in the same way as 'him'.

'Whom' is the object form of 'who'. We usually use who, not whom, as an object. In a very formal style 'whom' is used.

Who did you see?= Whom did you see?- very formal

'Whom/who' is the object and 'you' is the subject. ]

0

Since you ask what is correct, the most technically correct choice is whomever. But note that this is one of those times that casual usage has a strong preference; whomever is very rare in conversational usage, even when appropriate, and some might argue that it sounds odd enough in this sentence that it would be best to reword it.

But whomever is still the object of the sentence, and "approved of the decision" is just a phrase modifying it. Consider an easier object:

I shall challenge the person who approved of the decision.

Here, "the person" is clearly the object of the sentence. It's modified by the clause "who approved of the decision." It's true, we just used the word who, but it didn't change the objective nature of "the person." How about if we replace "the person" with a pronoun:

I shall challenge him who approved of the decision.

Here, him stays objective, and the who is still free to be subjective. When we replace him with whomever, our sentence needs an object more than the clause needs a subject, so it stays objective.

I'm only 60% sure about this argument. Another perspective could be that the entire phrase "whoever approved of the decision" can be thought of as the object of the sentence. If this is correct, then we should choose whoever, as it's the subject of this clause, and the clause as a whole can be the object.

4
  • I can understand this answer, and btw, I'm 99% sure about this argument. Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 20:18
  • 5
    "Since you ask what is correct, the most technically correct choice is whomever." – According to all the sources I've looked at, it should be whoever, since the choice is governed by the word's role in the relative clause. What authority would recommend whomever here? Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 11:41
  • I think you argue against yourself. If 'approved of ...' is just a phrase modifying the object, doesn't that make it part of the object? I note BillJ uses the same '.. person who' argument as justification for 'whoever'. Also in your example, we replace 'him who' with whomever (not just 'him') and I think that alters how you look at it. Finally - and this is a battle far from over - 'correct' does not necessarily relate to technicalities in some prescriptivist's rule book, an equally valid viewpoint is that 'correct' is defined as what speakers naturally use ;-)
    – mcalex
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 12:18
  • 1
    @mcalex I agree; rather than "what's right," a better question is "what are the consequences of a usage." And yeah, as I note, I'm not 100% convinced either way, so I at least offered an explanation of how the opposite viewpoint would be explained. I do think "one big phrase is the object" is a better explanation than "who cares about an object." Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 12:40

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .