The person gets fused into who's next.
In sentences like these, the “who’s next” part is called a fused relative, in the terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. You can think of it as doing the same job as the noun phrase “the person who’s next.” In fact, that’s why it’s called a fused relative: It’s as if “the person” has been merged into the “who’s next” so that we just have “who’s next” doing both jobs. Distinguishing fused relatives from ordinary interrogatives is an interesting exercise if you’re into language, but we don’t have time to go into the details here. The main point is, in present-day English, who isn’t the preferred way of forming fused relatives. Instead we prefer to use the pronoun whoever or not use a fused relative at all, and say the person who. The person who is next.
Other Places You Can Find Fused Relatives
Nevertheless, fused relatives exist in contexts other than serving people in a line. The linguist Geoff Pullum even quotes one from Shakespeare in a blog post on Can I help who’s next? (4) It’s a line from Iago in Othello: “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’twas mine, ’twas his, and has been slave to thousands.” Mark Liberman, another contributor to Language Log, has taken to calling fused relatives with who “Iago clauses,” and has collected several more examples of them in a post from 2013. (5) They include Who we cast is gonna do a great job, You play who you get, and Hire who you need. One commenter threw in this one from George Orwell’s 1984: Who controls the past controls the future. In a post on the blog Literal-Minded, there’s the example Who told me was my dad. (6)
Why Is “Can I Help Who’s Next”Annoying?
As for why Can I help who’s next? should sound incorrect to so many speakers, it’s probably one more effect of repetition. The other examples may sound fleetingly odd, but then they’re gone. But when you’re waiting in line and hear Can I help who’s next? again and again, and every time you do you think, Oh, I would have said ‘Can I help whoever’s next?,’ by the time you reach the front of the line, your mild curiosity might well have turned to annoyance.
But please, give those service workers a break, and focus on how they’re trying to help you, instead of on their grammar choices.
This podcast was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics, blogs at LiteralMinded.wordpress.com, and is a regular contributor to the online resource Visual Thesaurus.
1. Patricia O’Conner. “Does she … or doesn’t she?” Blog post on Grammarphobe. April 27, 2009. http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2009/04, accessed April 12, 2014.
2. Thread: Use past tense/passive to be more polite? June 27, 2011. WordReference.com language forums. http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=2186541, accessed April 12, 2014.
3. Comment on blog post “Can I help who’s next?” by Lynne Murphy. Blog post on Separated by a Common Language. Oct. 19, 2007. http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/10/can-i-help-whos-next.html?showComment=1192804140000#c4839489505111857777, accessed April 12, 2014.
4. Geoff Pullum. “Can I help who’s next?” Blog post on Language Log. Dec. 4, 2005. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002690.html, accessed Apr. 4, 2014.
5. Mark Liberman. “Fused relative clauses with who.” Blog post on Language Log. June 1, 2013. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4665, accessed Apr. 4, 2014.
6. Neal Whitman. “Who told me was my dad.” Blog post on Literal-Minded. Jan. 15, 2011. http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/who-told-me-was-my-dad/, accessed Apr. 4, 2014.