“Whoever/​Whomever” in Fiction:
Which Should Your Character Use?

Recently, a question that went something like this appeared in a Facebook group for writers seeking help from book editors:

Help with this sentence please! “Some advice, for whoever/whomever is interested.” A friend said it should be “whoever” and my editor said “whomever.” How do you vote?

In the rollicking spirit of Facebook, grammar is routinely decided by ballot. The votes were all over the place. Some were based on the “feeling” of the voter. Some repeated what others had already said. There was at least one claim that the choice depends on whether you’re American or British or Australian. (It doesn’t.) And there was the requisite insult, causing an admin to throw down a caution.

Mainly, there was confusion. Not even the professional copyeditors knew for sure, although it didn’t stop them from holding forth. Two or three cited a source, evidently unaware of social-media etiquette.

Who needs a source if something “sounds right”?

Who indeed? Many commenters at Facebook pointed out that a character should speak naturally, grammar be hanged. I agree.

But what seemed to be missing from the discussion was the idea that knowing what’s technically correct is a superpower for a writer who wants a character to speak naturally, whether or not the character uses standard English grammar.

Having this knowledge, a writer can more finely tune a narrative voice or dialogue, adding layers of subtle distinction. The grammar chosen for a character can potentially reveal more about that person than a paragraph of description. A character can

  • know and use the correct grammar confidently
  • know what’s correct but choose to use casual grammar or dialect to make a point or be funny
  • not know standard grammar and use casual grammar or dialect
  • not know the rules of standard grammar but use it intuitively
  • “code switch,” fluently using different grammars in different company

But wait—there’s more

The example on Facebook (“Some advice, for whoever/whomever is interested”) suggests yet another scenario, wherein a character tries too hard, using grammar that sounds proper but is technically wrong or needlessly awkward. If the stumble is true to the character—say an ambitious young student who’s been listening and studying but isn’t yet proficient—it provides the perfect touch.

If, however, a grammar choice is wrong for a character or for the narrative voice—if it’s just the writer fumbling (or worse, a copyeditor meddling)—the speaker loses credibility. The reader laughs or cringes at the result:

“Pardon, milady, the telephone.” “Thank you, Withers. Whom is it?”

“Yeah, shut up, Bugsy. It’s fewer than ten bucks.”

His questions hit hard. Harder than did the bullet.

In the first example, a proper “lady” would say “Who is it?” As written, the question befits an Eliza Doolittle type, trying her best but coming up short.

In the second, proper-sounding grammar doesn’t fit the noirish vibe. It’s not that a gangster can’t use standard English; the problem is the inconsistency between the slangy “Yeah, shut up” and the use of “fewer” where “less” would be more natural. (And in any case, “less” is correct in expressions of quantities like dollars.)

In the third example, the clipped prose style begs for “Harder than the bullet,” which happens to be grammatically correct. That fussy “did” reeks of a copyeditor chasing a zombie rule.

This post centers on the use of “whoever/whomever,” but the same advice applies to decisions about “who” and “whom.” “Whom did they call?” is formal standard English, but few people speak that way. Depending on the context, a fictional character can use “whom” or “whomever” to sound prim, annoyed, polite, or sarcastic. “Who did they call?” sounds more natural, less loaded with meaning.

Some advice, for whoever is interested

(Yes, “whoever” is correct.)*

It’s a recurring dilemma for writers: Should a character sound right or be right? Do readers know or care? What if the grammar is right but readers think it’s wrong? What if the nonstandard version is widely used and accepted? How much does any of this matter?

No one ever said good writing is easy. We’ve all heard of authors who effortlessly spewed a best seller with minimal revision or editing, but dollars to doughnuts, most successful writers labor over their work, drafting, crafting, submitting gratefully to beta readers and editors and copyeditors. It’s through thoughtful honing that a sentence shines, a character becomes real, and a coherent, immersive story emerges.

For writers striving to improve

  • Update your grasp of standard English grammar. Read chapter 5 of The Chicago Manual of Style. Read Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer (New York: Random House, 2019).
  • Make note of grammar you aren’t sure of and avoid it until you’re confident. Use “whom” or “whomever” only if you’re rock-solid sure about why your narrator or character would choose it.
  • Be careful who/whom you trust on Facebook.

* The trick is to stop seeing “whoever” as the object of a preposition when it’s actually the subject of its own clause, “whoever is interested.” See under “whoever; whomever” at CMOS 5.250: “Avoid the second unless you are certain of your grammar {give this book to whoever wants it} {I cook for whomever I love}. If you are uncertain why these examples are correct, use anyone who or (as in the second example) anyone.”

Top image: Snob, by Charles LeBlanc, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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Which Should Your Character Use?

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