Saturday, July 09, 2011

the sort of question I wish appeared on standardized tests

Fill in the blank with the correct answer:

"Give this slipper back to ________ dropped it," said Prince Charming.

a. whoever
b. whomever



Kevin Kim said...

The answer is (a): whoever.

Many will be tempted to pick (b), and with good reason: for the grammatically literate, it's a commonplace that "whom" is the accusative and dative form of "who," i.e., it's used as an object-- specifically, an object of a preposition:

to whom
for whom
with whom

So "whomever" makes sense if one mentally places parentheses before "to" and after the blank.

The problem, of course, is that the phrase "_____ dropped it" is obviously a clause. A clause is a miniature sentence, if you will (I use "miniature" with caution, as clauses can be lengthy), and like a normal sentence, a clause requires a subject and a predicate. For that reason, whatever goes into the blank has to be in the nominative (i.e., subjective) case, not the accusative or dative. One's mental parentheses should be placed, not before the "to," but immediately before the blank and after the "it," because the entire phrase, and not merely the phrase's first word, is the object of the preposition "to."

Having said all that, I don't want you to think that the above reasoning involves the use of air-tight logic. It doesn't. The history of English could have been such that the phrase "to whomever + [predicate]" represented some sort of special exception. But that's not how English evolved.

Here's one authority on the topic at hand. Note that one would use "whomever" if the clause already had another subject. The above-linked site gives this example:

We will hire whomever you recommend.

This is correct because "you" is already the subject of the clause, so "whomever" is clearly the accusative of "hire."

Nathan B. said...

I was going to say "whoever" but then I thought, "Kevin is so smart, maybe he's got some support for "whomever". But really, though, I wanted to add a few more options:

c) the one who
d) the chick that
e) (a) and (c)
f) none of the above. The Prince was lying.

Kevin Kim said...

I love it. That would be a fun exam to take.