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I ran across an interesting comment in response to the following question about whoever vs whomever.

The OP asked for "correct" usage. I assume they don't care about what's colloquially more common ("whomever" is incredibly rare even when appropriate), and are just asking: "Should this pronoun be considered subjective or objective in this sentence?"

And it got me thinking - when answering questions about 'correct' usage, should we lean more into a prescriptivist approach (this is what leading authorities on usage say) or a descriptivist approach (this is how people actually speak and write). I really don't want to get into a philosophical debate about which is a 'true' account of language, because that's a politically charged question. But I think it would be useful for the community to have general consensus about which way we should answer questions. It particularly comes up when users use archaic or formal constructions that have fallen out of general use (e.g. shall) or usage that has historically been considered correct, but which has never been observed in actual speech (don't end a sentence with a preposition, don't split an infinitive).

My two cents is that it's more useful to tell people how people actually communicate in English, because that's going to help them communicate better in real life. But I can also see the argument from the other side, particularly the idea that learning a more structured set of rules makes it easier to understand the language. Either way, I'd just like some guidance in how I should answer questions.

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    People should just write the best answer they can write from their perspective, and vote for the answers that they feel best answer the questions. It is not constructive in my opinion to try to make the community all answer questions the same way. We’re not writing a book. Having multiple answers for readers to choose from that are written from different perspectives is a good thing, not something that needs to be fixed.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 2:07
  • I like that idea! Commented Mar 15, 2022 at 2:55

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There are a couple of different questions here.

Which should answerers give? Of course, if a question explicitly asks for one, answers should give that one. Both are useful for learners to know, so answerers can give whichever they prefer, or both, so long as (when the two diverge) the distinction is explained clearly and accurately. People may reasonably disagree on their relative importance — but so long as a descriptivist answer is phrased as “In modern usage, whoever is standard in all situations, and whomever is very rarely used…”, or a prescriptivist answer is phrased as “Traditionally, whomever is used when its referent is the subject of the relative clause…”, neither should be objectionable to people who prefer the other.

Should we assume that by “correct”, askers mean “prescriptively correct”? Here I think the quoted comment is making a mistake. On most points, “prescriptively correct” is the same as “what a native speaker would use when speaking carefully” — the fact that they diverge at all is strange and artificial, and I don’t think most learners are thinking about the distinction most of the time. So when a learner just asks what’s “correct”, I don’t think we can assume they intend “prescriptively correct”.

Overall: Unless the questioner is very explicit that they mean one or the other, I think we should assume that both may be relevant, and that the questioner may not be aware of the distinction.

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    +1 for "the questioner may not be aware of the distinction". Part of the difficulty with encoding knowledge in a Q&A format is that the person asking the question may not know enough to ask in a way that gets to the heart of what they want to know.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 13:18
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    1) Careful speakers do NOT follow prescriptivist rules. 2) You seem to be equating "prescriptivist" with "old-fashioned" and "descriptivist" with "modern". Why? They have nothing to do with each other!!! Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 23:55
  • The kind of "prescriptively correct" many people on ELL are looking for is "whatever the English workbook wants" - which may or may not be related to English as she is spoke, even by careful native speakers. I think all cases are worth covering - whether it's the unambiguously correct, the descriptively correct but maybe not fully accepted, and the "correct but probably not what your English book wants at your level" - but I prefer to give a baseline by-the-book answer first and then expand upon it with the less obvious cases. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 9:08
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    @MaciejStachowski Good point, but that's not what "prescriptivist" means here. 'By the book' is fine. Prescriptivist rules, on the other hand, are rules that aren't real that somebody has made up and which nobody follows. Examples are "Don't use a preposition at the end of a sentence" or "Don't put any words in the middle of a 'to'-infinitive' or "Don't use 'which' in defining relative clauses" and so forth. There's nothing 'by the book' about those rules. Those rules will get students into trouble. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 10:20
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. is a prescriptivist dictionary 100% wrong? Prescriptivism refers to all attempts to enforce formal rules for the language, not just to the subset of obsolete or over-the-top rules you mention. "'less' goes with mass nouns and 'fewer' with countable ones" is a prescriptive rule, and it's not something made up that nobody follows. There are exceptions, sure, but you can't just ignore it and use "less" and "fewer" interchangeably. And even for those made up rules it's worth mentioning them so that the student isn't surprised when someone objects to a split infinitive. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 10:50
  • @MaciejStachowski "Fewer" etc is an edge case because it actually is part of the real grammar of many speakers. It's just that people's grammar is changing. (Note, however, that the grammar there is much more complicated than it first appears.) So that argument is about which group of speakers can be thought of as speakers of Standard English. It's not part of the repertoire of made up silliness. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 10:58
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore: I certainly don’t mean to equate “prescr.”/“descr.” with “old-fashioned”/“modern”, not to suggest that careful speakers in formal contexts “follow” prescriptivist rules. My point is that much of the time, those happen to coincide (since while a few prescriptivist rules are total nonsense, many more are just slightly over-simplified, conservative, and similar), and that phrasing it in those terms is usually much clearer and more useful for learners, not to mention less objectionable.
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 10:06
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It seems to me that in most cases our goal (those who are answering questions, mostly) is to help learners be able to use "English as she is spoke", that is, to use the language so as to understand and be understood by fluent speakers, whether in speech or writing, whether in casual, business, formal, or technical contexts, as each learner may need or want.

Learning "rules of grammar" is a tool to that end, not an end in itself. But in some cases it is a useful tool. A rule is often easier to learn and remember then endless special cases.

The question and some answers discuss the split between prescriptivists and non-prescriptivists . But in my view, the more fundamental split is between formalists and non-formalists. A formalist, in this context, believes that a useful set of rules of grammar define correct English. A prescriptivist is by definition a formalist. But there can be descriptivist formalists also. Such a person looks at current usage, and then attempts to distill it into "rules". Such a person believes that the rules change as usage does, but at any given moment there is a set of rules which define correct English.

The problem is that English usage is too complex for a useful set of rules to capture it fully. English is finite, and in theory a finite set of rules could capture its every nuance. But such a set of rules would be so large and complex that it would, I think actually be harder to learn and use than just memorizing every word and its special usages. It would also be a monster effort to formulate such a set of rules and keep it up-to-date. A Formalist acts as if we already have such a set of "perfect" rules. But we don't.

Rules of grammar that are usable cover the more common cases. They often miss edge cases and nuances, sometimes badly. Teaching the rules without teaching the exceptions, or at least that there are exceptions, will often serve learners poorly. They may fail to understand less common usages, and may sound odd to native speakers.

Many learners are formalists. They expect a clear-cut, often simple, rule for every case. Perhaps their other languages are closer to this ideal. Perhaps they have been taught by formalists, either in other languages or in English, or both. But this can leave them confused when a "rule" they have been taught or have deduced fails to correctly describe some usage.

Many people posting answers or comments on this site tend to write as formalists. They declare rules, and say that any usage contrary to those rules is "wrong". Sometimes the proposed rule is sufficiently widespread that any usage contrary to the rule will be unclear or sound odd to a fluent speaker. But sometimes the rule is better thought of as a guideline. For example, one poster recently denounced any use of a double negative as "wrong", even though many acknowledged "good" writers use certain kinds of double negatives ("not unlikely" for example) and some dialects make them a very common part of their usage. To teach such a rule as an absolute is not helpful.

Often summarizing a wide group of usages in a "rule" is helpful. But we have to be aware of the limits of the rule, of classes of exceptions, or at least that there may be exceptions, and mention those things when teaching the rule, in my view.

And when we use rules derived from grammar texts, whether "traditional" or "modern" we need to be aware of changing usage. A rule thought correct at one time may not correctly describe usage now. In many cases it never did, such as the "rule" about not ending a sentence with a preposition, or the "rule" against split infinitives. Or the "rule" that all conditionals belong to one of a small set of numbered types. There is correct usage that violates each of these rules. So any such rule must be mentioned with caution and caveats, if at all. At least that is my view.

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I agree with ColleenV's comment entirely. Just to add my two cents:

I don't believe that either the "prescriptivist" or "descriptivist" approach (or anything in-between) is inherently more "correct". Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I therefore think that either is fine for this site but would recommend making the distinction clear when it is significant. (For example: "In such situations, whoever is common in both spoken and written English and accepted by many grammarians, but many prescriptivists insist upon whomever to indicate the objective case.")

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  • What are the advantages in terms of teaching rules that nobody every follows or has followed, especially in formal English? Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 23:42
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. When I say “prescriptivist”, I mean advocating for rules that many people do follow. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 5:13
  • What rules do you have in mind? Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 10:14
  • @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. For example, using “whomever” for object pronouns (mentioned above). The usefulness of that rule can be debated, but surely you can’t maintain that “nobody ever follows or has followed” it? There are many examples of people following it! Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 19:37
  • I absolutely maintain it 100%. There's no native English speaker who follows that rule. If I make up a rule of physics that every coin tossed must land heads up, the fact that 50% of any coins tossed will land heads does not mean that tossed coins follow my rule of physics. Similarly nobody follows any made-up rule with regard to the case of the head wh-ever word in fused relative clauses. It doesn't matter if some of the things that some people sometimes say sometimes coincide with the rule. A rule is not something that is sometimes arbitrarily coincided with by some people. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 20:53
  • (Sorry for multiple pings. I had loads of typos!) Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 20:54
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Oh, I think I see. If I understand correctly, you’re saying that if something is not followed 100% of the time by everyone, then it’s not a “rule”. Is that correct? If so, then I am using the word “rule” differently. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 21:12
  • No, that's not what I said or meant! Accidentally coinciding occasionally with a made-up rule is not following a rule.(nobody said anything about 100% etc). The example was pretty clear. What's more, there is no rule here. The he/him rule is inapplicable to fused relative clause constructions by definition. [The word fused indicates they can be simultaneously the object of one clause and the subject of another and vice versa. The words he and him can't do that.] Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 13:47
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. I’m sorry, but I think I lost your thread a bit. I never mentioned he / him. I mentioned the “rule” that “whomever” is used for the object case. Those issues are certainly related; are you conflating them? Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 19:50
  • Yes, was conflating the 'objective case' with the pronoun substitution mentioned elsewhere. My bad. However, the two problems still stand. 1) The relative pronoun, being 'fused' has two syntactic functions therefore it's not possible to tell which case it 'should' be in. It could be the object (or head the object NP) in one clause and the subject in the other or vice versa. There is no authority to appeal to. 2) Prescriptivist rules, not being real rules of the language, are not followed even by their adherents! Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 21:10
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    Thank you for clarifying. I don’t think that #1 is an issue with this example, because “whoever” is never used as a relative pronoun. As for #2, New York (like many other jurisdictions) has a rule saying “don’t jaywalk,” but I’ve seen police officers jaywalking many times. The fact that they don’t always adhere to it doesn’t mean that it’s not a rule, at least in my opinion. Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 23:08
  • If you don't think it's a relative pronoun, what do you think it is? Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 23:29
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. Sorry, I know that there is a difference in terminology. In a sentence like "I will choose who(m)ever is best", many people call "whoever" a relative pronoun. I normally don't. But the more important issue is that the prescribed case is clear: the case of who(m)ever is determined by its function within the subordinate clause. In this clause, it functions as a subject, so "whoever" is selected. There is no ambiguity in the rule. Commented Mar 26, 2022 at 23:58
  • Erm, the case of wh- words is decided by the clause they're in! Consider: " ... on account of whom?" v "on account of who?" In a normal relative clause the antecedent is the head of the NP in the main clause and the relative word the head of the NP (or other phrase) in the relative clause. In a fused relative the pronoun has the same grammatical function as the antecedent in the main clause and at the same time the same grammatical function as the corresponding relative word in the 'relative clause'. Commented Mar 27, 2022 at 0:07
  • BTW, I'm still curious as to what part of speech you deem whoever to be? Commented Mar 27, 2022 at 0:11
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As the learner here, I agree both are very useful - descriptivist version to actually understand people "on the street" and prescriptivist to know what to say in a formal meeting. Although my intuition is, people are more curious about the descriptivist answers more often because those are much harder to Google.

It's a pity this distinction didn't came to mind when I tried to ask for both of these versions in this question. Sometimes people here treat the colloquial version as if it's obvious to the learners. It's not - the connotations, the awkward vibes, the formality and the context are some of the most valuable things this site provides which one often doesn't find on the rest of the internet.

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    The problem is that the "prescriptivist approach" does NOT mean the more formal approach. If you go into a formal interview and follow the prescriptive rules, you won't get the job. And if you follow prescriptivist rules in your written or spoken English at work, you'll probably get fired. Not because you'll be doing anything wrong, but you'll be thought of as a weirdo. The whole point bout prescriptivism is that even prescriptivists cannot follow their own rules. But the main point here: prescriptivism has nothing to do with formal English. Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 23:39

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