Pronoun Use is NOT Rocket Science

By Maeve Maddox

What is so hard about knowing when to use I and when to use me?

Why can’t professional reporters and TV script writers get it straight?

Florida fifth-grader Damon Weaver understands the subject form of the first person personal pronoun.

In case you’ve missed him on YouTube, Damon Weaver is newly-famous for interviewing Senator Joe Biden and for being pushed away by Secret Service agents when trying to question Senator John McCain. A recent Google search for “Damon Weaver” racked up 1,740,000 hits.

Before Weaver interviewed Biden, he interviewed a local TV reporter. The reporter used me where he should have used I. Later on, Weaver demonstrated his own grasp of the grammatical concept by using I correctly.

Last night, veging out in front of the TV, I was treated to three examples of incorrect pronoun use in a row.

Two occurred in The Mentalist:

She and him were sneaking around behind my back.

At least we know it wasn’t her that killed Cara.

Then, barely a minute into Without A Trace, came this one:

Me and my mom used to go there.

Come on, writers! If a ten-year-old can get it straight, what’s your excuse?

Fifth-Grader Has Better Grammar than News Reporter (Link no longer active)

Grammar 101: Pronouns

TV’s War on Me and I

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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16 Responses to “Pronoun Use is NOT Rocket Science”

  • Wizbit

    I’d say, when it comes to the fiction you’ve quoted, the misuse of pronouns is valid because that’s how people speak. It would sound odd to most people’s ears if a ‘normal’ character in a show spoke correctly rather than with the colloquialisms and oddities that have become intrinsic to spoken English.

  • Brian D

    I’m as much a grammatical stickler as the next guy, but I’m willing to give a little more leeway for speaking than I am for writing, and I suppose most folks who write dialogue for screenplays take that into account too, unless the character is supposed to be a little stilted. But maybe we should have a Daily Speaking Tips blog too.

  • Maeve

    Wizbit,
    Yes, I’ve acknowledged elsewhere that when creating an uneducated character, faulty grammar is part of the package.

    What I find exasperating is incorrect usage in the speech and writing of people who are supposed to be educated: reporters, doctors, teachers, lawyers, and the like.

  • bad tim

    speaking of tv writers and reporters, what about their assaults on sentence structure? some of them seem like they never want to use verbs.

    tv reporters: dropping verbs; muddling their message. jay leno doing it also. more at ten.

    i understand that they think they need to communicate to the lowest common denominator, but must they destroy the language to do that?

    bad tim: stopping himself from ranting on pandering to the lowest common denominator.

    seriously; is speaking in colons easier for dim-witted people to understand?

  • Joshua

    Also, it should be noted that people speak/write differently depending on the context. If I type a quick email to my wife, it won’t contain the same language, grammar or usage that a memo to the people I supervise at work would contain. Likewise, when presenting something at work, I speak differently than if some of my friends and I (see, there it is!) were together watching a football game.

  • Maeve

    Joshua,
    You make valid points and, though you are writing here in an informal context, you do use the correct form of the pronoun.

    More on this in a future post.

  • Brad K.

    Is it “veging out”, or “vegging out”? I would have thought the root would be ‘veg’, so the g would be doubled before the ‘ing’. Or did I get it wrong?

  • Maeve

    Brad,
    I puzzled over how to spell it before deciding to go with one g.

    The verb whose -ing form I wanted to use is presumably
    to vege – to sit like a vegetable, neither moving nor thinking

    The infinitive can’t be “to veg” because without the addition of the silent final e, the word would rhyme with leg.

    I wrote veging in order to keep the soft g sound. I felt that to double the g would create a spelling that indicates the hard g sound, as in legging.

    Hence veging
    .
    I think you’ll find both spellings in use on the web. Neither has made it into Webster’s Unabridged as yet.

  • Brad K.

    OK, you challenged me. According to my Chambers dictionary, circa 1989, “veg”, noun, is a colloquial contraction of vegetable(s). And pronounced ‘vej’.

    I am most used to pronouncing “veggies” as ‘vejjees’.

    My 1967 Random House Dictionary of the English Language claims veg, (‘vej’) is noun, plural, and British Informal contraction for vegetables: _A dinner with two veg._

    Both trace roots to Latin vegetabil(is), able to live and grow, and veget(are), (to) quicken, or energetic. So perhaps ‘veg out’, where we refer to the dish of vegetables served on the table as being .. inactive, should really be avegging. Except common usage in the US and US Media is that vegetation and vegetables are observed to not move around, instead of observe their growth with wonder (the Latin vegetare, to quicken, lively). Or maybe we have grown so hasty and instant and abrupt with our timely expectations, that we can’t be bothered to acknowledge cycles that take longer than an episode of ER.

    Vegging out, indeed!

  • Maeve

    Brad,
    White flag, white flag!

    I’m reeling with all that heavy artillery.

    I’m sure that if everyone agrees that veg denotes the sound /vej/ then that will be the official spelling. Ditto vegging and not veging. But I’ll still be hearing the hard g in my head.

    Btw, I too pronounce veggies /vej eez/ The spelling works for me. 🙂

  • Miss Godiva

    I agree that it’s frustrating when people use pronouns incorrectly, however, I also agree that in tv scripts and other dialogue it should be suited to the presumed education level of the character, for the sake of authenticity.

    Also, could you please show the correct usage for the examples you provide in your entry? I just want to make sure that I don’t use these pronouns incorrectly, and showing me the right way will help with my cause 🙂

    cheers and thanks! 🙂

  • Maeve

    Miss Godiva,

    The examples given:
    She and him were sneaking around behind my back.
    At least we know it wasn’t her that killed Cara.

    The examples corrected:
    She and he were sneaking around behind my back.
    At least we know it wasn’t she that killed Cara.

    If the corrected forms are too “inauthentic” sounding for TV characters, a scriptwriter could get around them with variations that would still be couched in correct grammar.

    Variations”
    My best friend was sneaking around behind my back with my boyfriend. Or
    They were sneaking around…

    At least we know it wasn’t Suzy that killed Cara.

  • Maeve

    The third example:
    Me and my mom used to go there.

    Corrected:
    My mom and I used to go there.

  • PreciseEdit

    The correct use of pronouns sounds odd to some people because so many other people speak incorrectly. Those who speak correctly seem “stilted” in the language use only by those who are not accustomed to hearing and using correct speech.

    This occurs in other areas of language use, too. For example, “Data,” which is a plural term, is often used with a singular pronoun and verb. To many, this sounds correct, though it isn’t. Wrong: The data is in the report. Correct: The data are in the report.

    We concede that spoken English isn’t as formal (in most situations) as written English. However if more people used English correctly, especially those in the public, in the media, etc., people in general would likely be inclined to do the same.

    This is an issue we encounter at every training session and with most documents we edit. Several articles in the Precise Edit Training Manual address the difference between what sounds correct and what is actually correct. (FYI: We’re donating $1 to the National Center for Family Literacy for every manual purchase through December 31. This organization has much work to do, obviously!)

  • Warsaw Will

    I think there’s a bit of snobbery here going on here about ‘uneducated’ characters. Lots of us would say informally to our friends ‘Me and Dave are going to the pub. Are you coming?’, but to an older relative perhaps, ‘Sandra and I are having some friends round for drinks. Would you like to join us?’. it’s more a matter of register than education. At least in the UK it is (see New Fowler’s).

    What’s more, I can’t think of an occasion where I’d ever say – ‘At least we know it wasn’t she that killed Cara’ – it may be ‘correct’, if you believe that only formal English is correct, which I don’t – but it doesn’t sound at all natural to me.

    I wish that people (for example PreciseEdit) would stop castigating those of us, who like me rarely use ‘whom’ and would never say ‘Hi mum, it is I’, as being uneducated or ignorant. We know the choices very well, and prefer to speak natural English rather than the artificial version cooked up by the traditionalists. A position supported by dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster.

    It’s about time we all realised that formal English is the exception, not the ‘rule’. Grammar should be based on common educated usage, not on the whims of grammarians trying to fit English to the rules of Latin.

    And perhaps before pontificating about what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ about things like the use of the word ‘data’, it might be a good idea to check with a dictionary.

    Talking of dictionaries – Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary – ‘veg out’, phrasal verb.

  • Maeve

    Warsaw Will
    I can agree with you on some of your points. Ending a sentence with a preposition and splitting an infinitive have long been acceptable. The form “whom” as the object of “who” is on its way out for most speakers. “It’s me” is more idiomatic than “It is I” because English speakers expect the object form of a pronoun to follow a verb, even a copulative verb.

    Where I must disagree with you (and the New Fowler’s if it condones it) is using “me” in a compound subject: “Me and Dave are going to the pub.”

    You may do it deliberately as “a matter of register,” but many speakers do it because they don’t know any better.

    My five-year-old granddaughter says “Me and my daddy went to the park,” and “Me and my mommy painted a picture.” She doesn’t do it for the sake of register. She does it because one of her parents does it in every context.

    When an educated speaker like you says “Me and Dave are going to the pub,” an uneducated listener cannot be blamed for imagining that the construction must be acceptable English. I think that it’s possible to speak informally without departing from standard grammatical usage. (http://www.dailywritingtips.com/colloquial-does-not-have-to-equate-with-ignorant/)

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