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Whosever Language This Is

This doesn’t happen too often, but today it stopped me cold: I was writing a paragraph from Ten Gentle Opportunities and couldn’t decide which of two usages was the right one. When there are two ways to say something, I generally have an intuitive sense for which is the more correct way, based on what I’ve read as much as what I’ve learned of proper grammar. This is one of the benefits of reading much and broadly.

Today I got stuck between two usages that both felt a little wrong, and both almost precisely the same measure of right. Here’s the sentence in question, done the way I learned it way back in the Precambrian:

Carolyn stabbed the End Call button, and rose to go fetch her intern, or whosever intern he was.

It sounded a little off. The other way also sounded a little off:

Carolyn stabbed the End Call button, and rose to go fetch her intern, or whoever’s intern he was.

My (moldy) style books all say “whosever” but I hear “whoever’s” a lot more in recent writing. I think what we’re seeing here is a usage at the tipping point. In a few more years, “whosever” will become an archaism, and people will look at you funny when you say it.

Is this good or not? I don’t know. Language evolves; sound and sense and all that. About the only thing I’m certain of is that I’m old. But I knew that.


  1. Andrew from Vancouver says:

    On the other, other hand:

    Carolyn jabbed at the End Call button, then rose to fetch the intern, whomever’s intern.

    NB: I am not a professional wordsmith.

  2. This was pretty esoteric. I’m still dismayed at increasing pronoun blunders; i.e., “Jim and me had lunch at …” or “They held a reception for Mary and I.” I read and hear this kind of language all the time – even in published works. I’m afraid “whosever/whoever’s” was below my language radar. I’m glad that professional writers are watching out for us.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. I’ve never seen whosever in print, and assumed it was an informal speech habit when I’ve heard it said. I suspect whoever’s is the modern usage.

    Discussion at some length on the subject here:

    I suspect but can’t prove that whosever is one of those constructions that came up in poetry somewhere as in the example in the website I gave – whosever can they be? instead of Whoever’s can they be? Tricksy things these multi-word combinations.



  4. RH says:

    I probably find “whoever’s” to be both common usage and what I would probably say if I were talking, but either would work for me except that…

    I can’t get past the (in my mind at least) conflict between “her intern” and the “whosever intern” / “whoever’s intern”. Have just explicitly assigned ownership of the intern, we now bring it into question? It clashes for me, badly. I would have no trouble if there were an “or” indicating that the original assignment of ownership was not absolute:

    “…to go fetch her intern, or whoever’s intern he was.”

    1. No, it’s precisely how it is for a reason. Carolyn has been asked to board what she thinks is a student intern hired to work for her ex-husband. Her ex-husband denies asking for a student intern, and states pretty clearly there and earlier in the story that he doesn’t like student interns and has no use for them. Carolyn then asks whose intern he (Stypek the Spellbender) is, and Brandon says he has no idea. So what Carolyn thought was “her” intern may in fact be somebody else’s intern. (Stypek is in fact nobody’s intern.)

      Lifting a single sentence out of a complicated (and generally ironic) story such as this is just asking for misunderstanding.

      1. Ha! Typo. There was supposed to be an “or” precisely where you wanted one, and there is in my manuscript. But when I re-typed the sentence here in Contra, the “or” got lost. Sorry about that! (Will fix shortly…)

  5. R-Laurraine Tutihasi says:

    So “whoever”, but I’d also lose the comma after button. There’s no reason for it to be there.

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