I am a grammar snob. Let’s be clear about that from the beginning. I spent more than 40 years of my professional career attempting to educate students about the intricacies of the English language. Sometimes I succeeded, and, although I hate to admit it, there were times when I failed. I like to think the successes outnumbered the failures, but of one thing I’m certain: I will continue to fight for proper grammar until I draw my final breath.
That being said, perhaps you can understand my outrage when I hear people who are supposed to be educated butcher the English language. But what really both amuses and enrages me is when people erroneously think their knowledge of grammar is superior, and in attempting to flaunt it, they make fools of themselves by committing an egregious error. Allow me to share with you what triggered this little rant.
A very good new television show made its debut last week, and while the actors associated with it deserve high marks, the writers should be thoroughly embarrassed. The show is titled “Crisis,” and it deals with the kidnapping of some elite Washington, D.C., high school students (including the president’s son) and the subsequent efforts of the FBI to rescue them. The show has a lot of promise, but it was a little beyond the halfway point when the writers put the wrong word into the mouths of two characters.
After a scene in which an FBI agent named Finley saves a very precocious student, the writers, in an attempt to underscore the young boy’s erudition, show their ignorance of proper grammar. Check out the following conversation between Finley and Anton.
Finley: I took this walkie off that guy downstairs. I’m gonna have a little chat with whoever is on the other end.
Anton: Whomever is on the other end.
Agent: This Secret Service Agent Marcus Findley speaking to whomever’s listening.
Now obviously Finley should have said that he took the walkie from the guy and not off him, but I will excuse this and chalk it up to dialectical license. The more serious problem, however, occurs when Anton incorrectly corrects Finley by telling him to use whomever. And in accepting Anton’s erroneous advice, Finley misuses whomever in his next statement. The correct usage in both instances is whoever, and in case you just might be the slightest bit curious about this, I offer the following explanation for your elucidation and edification.
The relative pronoun whoever is in the nominative case, which means it must be used as the subject of a verb. Whomever, on the other hand, is the objective form of the relative pronoun, and it can be used only as the object of something. Now the problem arises when we put a preposition in a sentence like the following: Give the book to whoever wants it. People look at the pronoun following the preposition and immediately assume it should be in the objective case because it’s the object of the preposition. But the true object of the preposition is the entire noun clause whoever wants it next, and because the subject of the clause is whoever, it must be in the nominative case. See how simple that is!
Now perhaps you’re wondering how a sentence with the correct use of whomever might look. I’m happy to show you. Consider the following statement: Give the book to whomever you choose. In the noun clause whomever you choose, the relative pronoun is the direct object of choose and must therefore be in the objective case.
Regrettably then, instead of making Anton look like a master of the English language, the “Crisis” writers inadvertently turned him into a grammar buffoon. Lest I be too harsh, however, allow me to say that the proper usage of who and whom is not easy to grasp. As many of my former students will attest, I said as much in my classes when I attempted (sadly not always successfully) to teach them this troubling concept. Now I will leave you with a little story in which who and whom are used correctly.
School was finally out for the summer, and as the two boys walked home, they wondered who their new football coach would be in the fall. Coach Hardass, whom the school board had fired, was history, and the boys hoped they would get guy who would be fairer than his predecessor. Of course nobody had asked any of the players whom they wanted as their coach, but the players hoped the board would give the job to whoever was the most qualified instead of handing the position to whomever some board members wanted. No matter who got the job, however, he couldn’t be any worse than Hardass, whom everyone despised.
Feel free to share this with whoever may benefit from it, including the writers of “Crisis,” whom you may or may not know.