Oh, no! After reading my last column on grammar and usage, a dear friend said she worried about speaking correctly in my presence. I love language, but not at the expense of friendship. I might be a language nerd, but I hope I’m not a language snob. And spoken errors are not as serious as written ones.
Yet readers of the March 26 “ which-hunting” column weighed in on both, airing their disdain for enough written and spoken grammatical errors for at least two more columns.
“Perhaps a distinction for ‘I should have went’ and ‘I should have gone’ would be appropriate in your next column,” said one reader. “I have heard educated reporters state the first more than once.”
I can’t imagine how “should have went” slipped into common discourse in place of “should have gone,” but I, too, have heard it and similar constructions, though not yet on a newscast. I wonder if helping verbs (should have, could have, etc.) create confusion.
“The ‘which’ and ‘that’ issue is one that drives me crazy!” wrote another reader who edits academic papers and doubts most academics know the difference.
A reader from Wallagrass wondered why I didn’t address the distinction between “who” and “that” as well. “I find more and more people use ‘that’ for people instead of ‘who,’” she wrote, with the example, “The person that left her books on the table will be coming back shortly.”
Problems with pronouns irritate more than two readers. Several mentioned misplacement of “I” and “me.”
No one would say, “Me went to the movie” or “He gave the tickets to I,” but add another person and you hear, “Me and Jim went to the movie” and “He gave the tickets to Bob and I.”
Take away the other person and the correct pronoun is obvious: “(Jim and) I went to the movie. He gave the tickets to (Bob and) me.”
Patricia T. O’Conner in her wonderful book “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” asks, “Why is it no one ever makes a mistake like this? You’ll be hearing from I.
“It’s instinctive to use the correct form (from me) when only a solitary pronoun comes after a preposition. But when the pronoun isn’t alone, instinct goes down the drain, and grammar with it. So we run into abominations like ‘The odds were against you and I,‘ although no one would dream of saying ‘against I.’”
In addition to “I” and “me,” one reader asked, “Is there any chance you might deal with the often misused word ‘myself,’ which seems to be a favorite of municipal officials and police, although many others abuse it, too.”
“In the contest between I and me, the booby prize often goes to myself. That’s why we see sentences like Jack and myself were married yesterday. (It’s Jack and I.) Or like this more common self-promotion: The project made money for Reynaldo and myself. The speaker isn’t sure whether it’s Reynaldo and me or Reynaldo and I, so she goes with Reynaldo and myself. Tsk, tsk. (It’s for Reynaldo and me.)
“Myself and the rest of the self-ish crew (yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves) shouldn’t take the place of the ordinary pronouns I and me, she and her and so on. They are used for only two purposes:
— To emphasize. I made the cake myself. Love itself is a riddle. The detective himself was the murderer. (The emphasis could be left out, and the sentence would still make sense.)
— To refer back to the subject. She hates herself. And you call yourself a plumber! They consider themselves lucky to be alive. The problem practically solved itself.”
Finally, I’ll acknowledge the reader who wrote: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for your column in today’s BDN on ‘bring’ and ‘take.’ This is one of those word misusages that really grates on me, along with ‘they/them/their’ to mean one person, misplaced commas, the list goes on, and we won’t even get into ‘who’ and ‘whom.’”
I will save “who/whom” and misplaced commas for another column, but this reader was not alone in her feelings about the use of “they/their.”
“I still wonder if someone will manage to invent a single word or words to substitute for ‘he/she’ and ‘his/her,’ so we don’t have to choose between the cumbersome ‘he/she’ construction or the horribly incorrect use of ‘they’ in the singular,” wrote a reader from Fort Kent.
O’Conner says in her book, “You may be tempted to use their [Somebody forgot to pay their bill.] because you don’t know whether the somebody is a he or she. Well, your nonsexist intentions are good, but your grammar isn’t.”
She advises you stick with the cumbersome pronouns. Sometimes you can forget the possessive and say, “Somebody forgot to pay the bill”; or make the subject plural: “They forgot to pay their bill.”
“Pronouns are usually small (I, me, he, she, it) but they’re the biggest troublemakers in the language,” O’Conner writes, citing pedants who argued Shakespeare should have had Ophelia cry ‘Woe is I’ instead of ‘Woe is me.’’
“If you’ve ever been picked on by the pronoun police, don’t despair. You’re in good company,” O’Conner says.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.