Learn English – Whoever vs whomever in “you could become whomever and whatever you wanted to be”


I think I noticed a mistake in Ready Player One:

In the OASIS, you could become whomever and whatever you wanted to be, without ever revealing your true identity, because your anonymity was guaranteed.

It’s supposed to be whoever right?

Best Answer

It's not actually clear whether "whomever" is a mistake here.

The relevant matrix clause breaks down like this:

You could become [whomever and whatever you wanted to be]

Here, [whomever and whatever you wanted to be] is a predicative complement.

In the embedded clause, "whomever and whatever" serves as the (fronted) predicative complement of "to be".

Here we run into a problem. "To be" is a non-finite form (it's the "to-infinitive"). In certain contexts, a to-infinitive may have a subject that takes "exceptional case-marking". For example, in the sentence "I wanted him to be my friend", "him" is marked for the accusative case even though it is the subject of the infinitive "to be". "Traditional" prescriptive grammarians seem to be in agreement that in a context like this, the predicate noun phrase associated with the to-infinitive is also supposed to be in the accusative, so for example, it would be "correct" to say "He said he would be whomever I wanted him to be".

But as far as I know, there is no consensus in "traditional" grammar about the "correct" case of "X" in a clause like "you wanted to be X". There seem to be two views: one is in favor of the nominative, because the (implied) subject of "to be" refers to the same person as the nominative pronoun "you". The other view is that there is an "implied" accusative subject (something like "you wanted yourself to be X") which means that the predicate noun phrase "X" should be in the accusative case. See Peter Shor's answer to my question “Being [he/him] is not easy.” Which is prescriptively “correct”?; Shor cites Reed and Kellogg (1878), who say that "I wish to be him—equalling I wish (me or myself) to be him—is the proper form" (p. 182). In contrast, Josephine Turck Baker (whom I cite in my question), says that "the pronouns I, he, she, we, they follow to be when to be is not preceded by a noun or a pronoun", and gives examples like "I should like to be she" (Correct English, Vol 21, 1920).

In fact, the actual distinction in usage between "whoever" and "whomever" is highly confused and unclear in modern English, so even if the "traditional" sources were unanimous it would be a bit difficult to say what is "supposed" to be the case.

Here are some possible explanations for the use of the "accusative" form whomever here:

  1. "Hypercorrection." I don't actually understand the precise definition of this term; some people seem to use it with a fairly broad sense, but others seem to have a much narrower definition. In any case, this could be characterized as a kind of "mistake": it's where a form associated with more elevated language is used in an "incorrect" context, without following any particular rule.

  2. Grammatical variation between Standard English speakers. If this is the cause, the use of "whomever" would not be categorized as a "mistake" by a linguist, although many speakers might call it a mistake regardless. I suppose it would not be entirely surprising if people don't all have the same grammatical intuitions about the use of rarely used words like "whomever". In this case, the use of "whomever" might be licensed in some dialects because "whomever and whoever" does not serve as the subject of the internal clause (that role is taken by "you").