When to Use Whomever and Whoever

Educated writers, aware of the difference between who and whom, will often generate sentences like the following:

(1)Whoever we elect as chair will do a good job.
(2)He gives this document to whomever is in charge.

But are these sentences correct? Many educated speakers and writers still have a hard time figuring this out.

On the Surface

Much of the confusion is owed to the fact that the structures of these sentences aren’t always easy to parse. Our usual inclination is to divide the sentences as follows:

SubjectPredicate
Whoever we elect as chairwill do a good job.
SubjectVerbDirect ObjectIndirect Object
Hegivesthis documentto whomever is in charge.

Knowing what we know about who and whom—the former is used for the subject, and the latter is used for objects—each sentence seems appropriately constructed: whoever is used in the subject and whomever is used for the object.

A Deeper Analysis

This is one of those cases where first impressions can be misleading. Although whoever we elect as chair is indeed the subject of the sentence, whoever is not the subject of its clause and therefore should be whomever. When we make constructions with other words in the same slot, this becomes clear:

(3)We elect her (direct object) chair.
(4)Whom (direct object) do we elect?

Following the same grammatical logic, we wind up with:

(5)Whomever (direct object) we elect as chair…

The same analysis can be conducted on He gives this document to whomever is in charge. While we can see that whomever is in charge is the object of the preposition to, whomever is in the subject position in its clause and, therefore, should be whoever.

(6)She (subject) is in charge.
(7)Who (subject) is in charge?

Thus:

(8)Whoever (subject) is in charge…

A Helpful Trick

One way to keep this straight is to focus first and foremost on the pronoun whoever‘s relationship with the clause it’s in. If it’s the subject position, it should be whoever; if in the direct or indirect object position then whomever.

Further, consider the entire phrase to be a self-contained unit that can be in the subject, director object, indirect object, or object of a preposition position and doesn’t care what the rest of the sentence is doing:

(9){Whomever we elect as chair} will do a good job. (Subject)
(10)I can’t wait to meet {whomever we elect as chair}. (Direct object)
(11)Give this to {whomever we elect as chair}. (Indirect object)
(12){Whoever is in charge} needs to see all the documents. (Subject)
(13)I can’t wait to meet {whoever is in charge}. (Direct object)
(14)Give this to {whoever is in charge}. (Indirect object)

To be fair, these constructions can be tricky, and it may take a little thought to figure out which relative pronoun is the proper one in a given circumstance. But all good writing requires careful attention, so it’s always good to slow down a little and take the time and care to write well. And don’t worry, even seasoned writers and editors still get this wrong from time to time.

So now, with the guidance we’ve given above, whoever you are and whomever you’re writing to, you’ll be all set.

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