thanks to the magic of the dvr, i just finished watching last night's episode of The Office. there was a brilliantly written scene in which Ryan's usage of whomever sets off a raging grammar debate. since the writers weren't actually taking sides on the issue, but instead doing their best to represent its contentiousness, they were able to successfully portray several points of view and the way that such debates inevitably degrade into snarkiness. even better, they were able to go beyond the he-said-she-said type of argument and really develop some interesting sociolinguistic points. here's the clip if you haven't seen it:
let's break down how this argument goes:
Michael: No, whomever is never actually right.amazingly we start off the whole debate with what could only be characterized as antihypercorrection (or maybe hyperanticorrection). usually whomever, the form that gets all the attention, gets overused in positions that wouldn't usually get accusative case in English, such as subject of a matrix clause. Michael, true to his character if you're familiar with the show, takes the high road on that and goes to the opposite end of the spectrum. personally, i'm not really picky on the who/whom issue but i do prefer whom-forms when they're the complement of a preposition or the complementizer for.
Creed: ...it's a made-up word used to trick students.Creed, being the most cynical of the bunch, offers this gem. it's a good, succinct commentary on how absurd the teaching of so-called grammar in school is. although he, like Michael, goes to the extreme with a "deny everything" mentality, anyone who is a linguist and has looked back on the prescriptive drivel that was fed to them in their early years realizes that a good bit of it was, in fact, totally unfounded.
Andy: Actually, whomever is the formal version of the word.by far the best line of the whole piece. the writer is language-savvy enough to know about registers of speech and furthermore the fact that hypercorrections (like using whomever to the exclusion of whoever) are often believed by speakers and listeners alike to denote some kind of higher social level.
Oscar: Obviously it's a real word, but I don't know when to use it correctly.finally some honesty from a character. since nobody actually receives accurate grammatical training unless they take linguistics courses in college, few people know if what they are saying is proper, improper, grammatical, or ungrammatical (of course there is overlap among these categories). there is a running joke of Michael considering Oscar as foreign because he is hispanic, so he calls him a non-native speaker. this couldn't be further from the truth. what is true is that so many native speakers of a language really have no clue how their grammar works.
Michael: Not a native speaker.
Kevin: I know what's right, but I'm not gonna say...ah, the disgruntled prescriptivist, caught in his own lies.
Ryan: Do you really know which one is correct?
Kevin: I don't know.
then a great debate about subjects, direct objects, and indirect objects ensues. no one is really sure what they are (our English teachers at work, once again), until Toby correctly analyzes that whomever in Ryan's original sentence was the indirect object. then he blows it, saying that's "the correct usage of the word." this, of course, is too limiting an interpretation of where whomever is allowed in English, which is basically anywhere that it doesn't receive nominative case. but we couldn't just leave it at that, an inaccurate conclusion. people gotta get angry over grammar!
Michael: No one, uh, asked you anything ever, so, whomever's name is Toby, why don't you take a letter opener and stick it in your skull.and of course the writers saved the one, truly incorrect use of whomever for Michael, who utters it as a parting blow.
so there you have it. file The Office along with The Simpsons and Family Guy under "linguistic instruction fodder."