LawProse Lesson #177: “Whoever” vs. “whomever.”

Whoever vs. whomever.

Like who and whom, whoever and whomever can be tricky for both lawyers and nonlawyers. Here are a few guidelines that should help:

If the word completing the syntax after -ever is a verb, and the -ever word is the subject of that verb, the correct choice is whoever {please send the evaluation to whoever attends the meeting}. This rule applies even if there are a few intervening words {whoever, under the circumstances, attends the meeting will receive a gift card}.

If the word syntactically following the -ever isn’t a verb for which the -ever word stands as subject, the correct choice is usually whomever {we should depose whomever our client remembers being present}. Again, this rule applies even if there are a few intervening words {please hire whomever, according to the final vote, the directors recommend}.

If you’re unsure, choose whoever. Even when the objective whomever would be strictly correct, whoever is at worst a casualism (not bad except in formal contexts).

For the possessive of whoever, use whosever in formal prose {Whosever brief is clearest and least cluttered usually prevails with Judge Breitel}. Yet whoever’s is now the usual colloquial form {Whoever’s blood is on the victim’s clothes will be arrested}. More strictly, however, the form whoever’s is a contraction of whoever is {Whoever’s going to the hearing needs to leave before noon} or, less commonly, whoever has {Whoever’s applied for the position must be notified immediately}.

The form whomever’s is always wrong. If it’s intended as a possessive form, it’s wrong for whosever {whomever’s [read whosever] team wins the appeal will receive a bonus}. If it’s intended as a contraction of whomever is, then whomever is wrongly acting as the subject of is {he told whomever’s [read whoever’s] in charge of the building}.

In modern writing, the forms whoever and whomever are preferred. Avoid the legalese and archaisms whosoever and whomsoever. Justice Holmes sometimes used whosesoever, a correct form made unnecessary by the modern preference of who(s)ever over who(se)soever.

It’s worth it to master using these terms. Whoever your readers are will appreciate the effort, and your grammatical precision will reflect well on you. (The preceding sentence is a tricky one: Whoever is the subject of will appreciate.)

Further reading:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 946 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 862-64 (3d ed. 2009).
The Chicago Manual of Style § § 5.62-5.63, at 220-21 (16th ed. 2010).

Note: If you missed last week’s lesson on who and whom, please click here: LawProse Lesson #176.

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