For some time, I've been bothered by a phrase I've been hearing a lot in shops and cafés in Brighton. It happens where there is one (BrE) queue/(AmE) line for several (BrE) tills/(AmE) cash registers (note that BrE and AmE have both of these terms, but use them slightly differently, as discussed a bit back here). The (BrE) shop assistant/(AmE) clerk, upon finding him/herself customerless, calls out: Can I help who's next?
Now, this just sounds weird to me, and I don't recall ever hearing it in my native land. I'd have to say Can I help whoever is next? or Can I help the next person? So, I brought this up at dinner the other night with Better Half, lazybrain and the Poet. All insisted that I shouldn't call this 'British English' because it's 'ungrammatical' and 'lazy'. But, of course, that doesn't make it not British. Certainly not Standard BrE, but there are at least some English people who are saying it.
So then I decided to have a look on the web for the phrase, and what is the first hit that Google gives me? Why, it's a British linguist (Geoff Pullum), then living in the US, who'd noticed its use in American establishments, and therefore discussed it at Language Log. So, some of you may be thinking "Ha! I knew that such ungrammaticality must be an American aberration imported into the youthspeak of Britain!" But by Pullum's account, this is not a new construction, but an old use of who that had been thought to be extinct for at least 150 years. So, what's going on here? Is it that:
- this use of who died out in most places but survived in little pockets of AmE and BrE and may be making a comeback?
- this use of who is a natural development in English grammar that has erupted on two continents at vaguely the same time after going out of fashion for a while?
- the phrase can I help who's next? is an idiom that was (re)invented in one country and found its way to the other?
See Pullum's Language Log post for the grammatical gore. (Won't be answering comments this weekend, so please amuse yourselves with the topic!)
Postscript (25 October): Ben Zimmer at Language Log has posted a great clip about whoever versus whomever from the US version of The Office. See comments here for more discussion...