October 24, 2007

It's a made-up word used to trick students

Geoff Pullum warned us a few years back about "the coming death of whom," and last week's episode of The Office provides ample evidence that whomever is similarly on its last legs.

I'd take this exquisitely constructed scene line by line, but there have already been two fine analyses on other blogs: from Neal Whitman at Literal-Minded and from Ed Cormany at Descriptively Adequate. The linguablogosphere doesn't miss a trick.

Related Language Log posts:

"I really don't care whom" (Apr. 17, 2004)
"Whom humor" (Apr. 18, 2004)
"The coming death of whom: photo evidence" (Sep. 10, 2004)
"Talking about whom you are and who you're seeking" (Nov. 9, 2004)
"Whomever controls language controls politics" (Oct. 22, 2005)
"Class consciousness" (Dec. 2, 2006)
"Dog whistles for linguists" (Dec. 21, 2006)
"Whom?" (Jan. 5, 2007)
"Marxist quotation" (Jan. 8, 2007)
"Whom shall I say [ ___ is calling ]?" (Jan. 23, 2007)
"Relevance of a different kind" (Jan. 28, 2007)
"A note of dignity or austerity" (May 3, 2007)
"ISOC, ESOC" (June 18, 2007)
"It's whom" (Aug. 29, 2007)
"Whom was that masked man?" (Sep. 8, 2007)

[Update: My offhand claim that whomever may be "on its last legs" has generated a wide range of reactions. Jay Livingston feels that whom is moribund but whomever is going strong:

Yes, whom is disappearing, but I hear whomever all the time. My secretary, for example, uses it as a stand-alone (I'm not a linguist, and I'm sure there's a technical term for this. "Who's going to take these?" "Whomever.") And between you and I, it's used in a similar way as "between you and I," and probably for the same reason -- it sounds more sophisticated.

Adrian Morgan, meanwhile, takes precisely the opposite position:

In my assessment, there is no "similarity" between the prevalence of "whom" vs "whomever" in present-day English. "Whom" may be on its last legs, but it's still out there, used by at least a significant minority of speakers, and everyone is aware of its existence. "Whomever" had all its legs amputated so long ago that the scars have healed, and, I suggest, has been completely eradicated from most dialects of standard English (even in the formal register).

I think we need some quantitative studies of spoken corpora over time before we can adequately take stock of whom and whomever. But regardless of actual frequency of use, there's no question that uncertainty surrounding usage of a word like whomever can evoke anxiety and confusion, which is what makes the humor of "The Office" work so well.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 24, 2007 12:49 PM