19 October 2007

The Office on whomever

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.
Michael: Not a native speaker.
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.
Kevin: I know what's right, but I'm not gonna say...
Ryan: Do you really know which one is correct?
Kevin: I don't know.
ah, the disgruntled prescriptivist, caught in his own lies.

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."


Anonymous said...

Oooh, yes. So glad to see a professional take on this great bit of dialogue.

"30 Rock" is also worth paying attention to. In one episode, the always-overwrought Tracy complains that some action or other "is untoward--it is NOT TOWARD." In his accent (Bronx? Brooklyn? New Jersey? Generic Northeastern Ghetto? I dunno--I'm from California), it comes out "not tu-WAHD.")

Anonymous said...

Interesting fact: The writer of this episode is the actor who plays Toby.

Ben Zimmer said...

That YouTube video has been taken offline, but there's another one that still works.

Anonymous said...

You'll want to add to your grammar-in-cartoons collection. There's a positively brilliant bit in "Beavis and Butthead Do America" about ending sentences in prepositions--and the convolutions people go through in order to avoid it.


The relevant bit starts at 8:25 in that clip.

Juneya said...

I was supposed to watch that particular video for class for extra credit and it sucks that it doesn't work. Check out my blog anyways even though I won't get points for it.http://cantcallmenormal.blogspot.com
(And if find the same clip somewhere else can you add it on there? Or send it to me? My email address is on my page. Thank you.)

Ed Cormany said...

ok, got another copy of the clip embedded. NBC is really on a crusade against their content on youtube (which they used to actively support!) i hope this one won't stop working too.

Juneya said...

thank you so much.

Petroc said...

so while we're exchanging youtube clips of prescriptivism cameos, on a recent Sarah Silverman Program, Sarah reveals to fellow abortion protesters that she's had not just one abortion, but abortions... then corrects herself, thinking abortions might not be the correct form. Here - the relevant part starts around 1:30.

Anonymous said...

Check out the following article.

Lasnik, H., Sobin, N. (2000). The who/whom puzzle: on the preservation of an archaic feature. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, 18.2, 343-371.

It seems that Andy may accidentally be the most correct of all his office cohorts.

Crwth said...

I was amused to get this clip during the last lecture of my Syntax class today, followed by a talk on wh-movement.

Anonymous said...

I just saw a rerun of this episode earlier tonight and I thought that Toby was wrong.

It was my understanding that an object of a prepositional phrase (such as "whomever" in "to whomever") could not also be an indirect object.

Maybe I'm wrong about this. I don't know.

In either case, though, "whomever" would be accurate since an object of a prepositional phrase uses the objective case.

Katharine Swan said...

I just saw this episode for the first time last night. The debate over who vs. whom is beautifully written, since it moves so quickly but represents all of the major misconceptions about the usage of these words.

Since I'm a professional writer I really would like to be able to post this clip on my blog, but yours is the only video clip of it that I could find. I don't see an embed option on the video. Can you tell me where you got the embed code for this video?

Thanks so much!

Ed Cormany said...

glad you enjoyed it! here's a link to the google video page; you can pull the embed code from there.


Katharine Swan said...

Perfect. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

But wouldn't "to whomever" be a preposition? So whomever would be the object of a preposition, instead of an indirect object?

Toby didn't get his grammar right. Tsktsktsk on him. :)

Ed Cormany said...

i'd say that in English you can represent an IO with either a noun phrase or a prepositional phrase, depending on the construction, although some people (linguists included) might quibble with that analysis.