Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on December 1, 2016

This post began as an exploration of a head-scratcher of a sentence I heard on an episode of Radiotopia’s Criminal podcast. In it, a woman described being an inmate in a prison that housed both men and women. (She described it as a “co-ed prison,” which is worthy of comment in itself, but not the main thing I was interested in.) The men greatly outnumbered the women, which was good for her, because she was addicted to drugs, and could do favors of the sexual kind for male prisoners who had them. Or as she put it:

I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.

Sheer context allowed me to twist this sentence into a shape that matched (for me) the meaning she was getting at:

I’d be the girlfriend of whoever had the dope.

or perhaps

I’d be whoever had the dope‘s girlfriend.

Context notwithstanding, the only meaning I can get from the actual utterance is that:

  1. Some person X has girlfriend Y.
  2. Y has the dope.
  3. The speaker will somehow become Y.

Was this simply an error, or is it something licensed by the mental grammars of other English speakers? I’ll table that question for now, because in the course of trying to answer it, I’ve discovered there’s another oddity involving the possessive form of whoever that I’d never even noticed–and as far as I’ve been able to tell so far, others haven’t, either.

Take a look at this handful of COCA examples I found that contain a fused relative involving whoever’s:

  1. Ronnie is whoever’s agent he needs to be.
  2. Now take the dead battery and put it in whoever’s car you got the good one out of.
  3. It happened on the second month of his presidency. He went on for 94 more months with whoever’s blood was in him.
  4. …playing strip poker in whoever’s house had no parents in it on rainy days
  5. whoever’s brain is highest in coherence dominates. do you believe this? whosoever’s brain is highest in chaos will dominate if brains are like crowds, or greed,

In these sentences, the fused relative performs a grammatical function in the larger sentence. For example, in (1), whoever’s agent he needs to be is the complement of is. In (2), whoever’s car you got the good one out of is the object of the preposition in. And so on.

Now I want to focus specifically on the heads of the free relatives: the whoever’s followed by the noun: agent, car, blood,…. Notice that this noun is the part that delivers the primary meaning to the verb in the larger sentence (or as linguists call it, the matrix clause). In (1), Ronnie is an agent. In (2), the command is to put something in a car. In (3), Ronald Reagan has someone’s transfused blood in him. In (4), we’re talking about playing strip poker in a house. And in (5), the thing that dominates is a brain. I’ll call this the “noun head” parse.

So far, so good. Now let’s consider these other sentences, also from COCA:

  1. it feels like they are living the life of whoever’s brain was recorded.
  2. Whoever’s pitch is chosen will earn a major promotion.
  3. Or we’ll each pick a [Jeopardy!] contestant at the beginning and whoever’s contestant wins doesn’t have to do dishes.
  4. But they knew that whoever’s DNA this was would be the killer.
  5. Whoever’s shack this is, is a Tupac Shakur freak.

In these examples, it’s not the nouns (brain, pitch, contestant, DNA, shack) that provide the meaning that completes the meaning of the verb in the matrix clause. So in (6), it feels like we’re living the life of the person whose brain was recorded–not the life of the brain of that person. In (7), it’s a person, not a pitch, that will earn a major promotion. In (8), the person who doesn’t have to do the dishes is not the Jeopardy! contestant, but the TV watcher who chose that contestant. In (9), the killer is a person, not that person’s DNA. In (10), the Tupac Shakur freak is a person, not that person’s shack. In short, in these examples, it’s the whoever’s that’s providing the main meaning to the matrix clause. I’ll call this the “pronoun head” parse.

All of these sentences are grammatical for me, but possessive fused relatives are so rare that I’ve only ever had to deal with one such sentence at a time. This COCA search was the first time that I came face-to-face with the two ways of parsing them, because it was the first time I had so many all in one place. Furthermore, the even split you see in the lists above is what I found in the data: After I discarded irrelevant examples, and examples that were ambiguous between the noun-head and pronoun-head parses, the ones I’ve listed here were all the ones that remained.

For completeness, I also did the search with the much rarer whosever, and what do you know, of the two relevant examples I found, there’s one of each:

  1. then match up the plaster casts with whosever shoes they are, and that way you could catch him
  2. Whosever pole lands the straightest and farthest wins.

In (11), we have a noun-head parse: You match up plaster casts with shoes, not with people. In (12), we have a pronoun-head parse: The winner is a person, not a pole.

I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing. I haven’t found it in some classic works on fused relatives (e.g. Bresnan & Grimshaw 1978, for those who are into this subject). If you know of anything that’s been published on this, please mention it in the comments!


7 Responses to “Whoever’s”

  1. Ran said

    > I looked in CGEL, expecting to find that the interesting discovery I’d just made was listed as a matter of course on page 1302 or somewhere. That’s what usually happens. But CGEL didn’t even touch on whoever’s/whosever at all, much less the details like the kind I’m discussing.

    It covers them in the footnote on page 1075. However, it seems to contend that most of your attested examples are ungrammatical, so I guess there’s room for improvement.

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the lead! Here’s what they say, for readers who don’t have a copy of CGEL at their fingertips right now:

      The genitive forms whosever and (informal) whoever’s are possible but rare in the free choice construction. Thus Take whosever/whoever’s you like could serve as the response to the question Whose bicycle shall I take? The genitives are not admissible outside the free choice construction — cf. *They want to question whosever/whoever’s dog was barking throughout the night [NW: This is like are like examples 1-4, in which the fused relative performs a non-subject function in the matrix sentence.] or *Whosever car is blocking my driveway must move it immediately [NW: This is like example 5, in which the fused relative performs the subject function in the matrix clause. However, these are (even) rarer, I think, and even this example is questionable. Does the brain dominate or the brain’s owner. Only after considering the context of the rest of the two sentences did I finally decide that the speaker meant the brain.] The close grammatical association between the genitive determiner and the following head noun seems to suggest the anomalous meanings where it is the dog they want to question and the car that must move itself.

      • John Cowan said

        I think Puddleston is right to rule out whosever, but wrong to rule out whoever’s. But I’m sure your input wouldn’t surprise at least Pullum too much: his paper “The Truth about English Grammar” is all about the extreme lack of patterning in English wh-words.

  2. M. Makino said

    This blog is extremely interesting and once again you’ve raised an issue that I never considered before. Without commenting on the main issue you’ve brought up, on the first example, ungrammaticality aside, I don’t think it’s unusual for people to speak of roles like “girlfriend” like a position, occupied or not, that one can “become” without implying that one someone “becomes” the person currently occupying that position. Like Avril Lavigne says, “I don’t like your girlfriend… I could be your girlfriend”. The first is a specific person and the second is a position. In your example what makes it sound like she’s instead willing to become an actual person is the error that she’s made in seeming to attribute possession of dope to the “girlfriend” rather than the “whoever”, and because we don’t normally think of positions as having dope. I realize she meant for “had the dope” not to apply to the girlfriend in the first place. Still, taking the error and its nonsensical implications as if that were her intended meaning, I wonder if it is the attribution of characteristics in general that forces us to read “girlfriend” as a specific person rather than a position in this case, or the specific characteristics that are being attributed. For example, if it were “I’d be whoever’s girlfriend is loved”, would people be more likely to interpret “girlfriend” as a position rather than as a specific person than if it were “I’d be whoever’s girlfriend got a watch for her birthday”, since being loved is feasibly a description of anyone occupying that position?
    Incidentally, Japanese treats “house”, “car” and various other accoutrements of modern life as positions which one can “change”, meaning replace with a different real-world instance of that word, much like one speaks of “changing a lightbulb” in the US. It leads to a lot of questions like “Did you change your car?” which sounded really strange to me but the issues underlying which were too complicated to explain.

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the interesting Japanese data. As for “I could be your girlfriend,” that’s fine for me, but when you say “whoever’s girlfriend has the dope,” you’re no longer talking about a role to be filled, you’re talking about a specific person. Unless you’re playing an unusual kind of board game, in which one of the character roles to be assigned is the “girlfriend who has the dope,” and furthermore, that character has to be assigned after the male roles are assigned. I’m inclined to think it was an error, until I find more examples.

      Speaking of which, I DID find another example in my COCA search, which I’ll write about in my next post.

  3. […] Whoever’s grammar is this? […]

  4. […] a post from exactly one year ago, I began with a sentence that I’d heard on the “Criminal” podcast. Here’s […]

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