Smart People, Bad Grammar

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Stanley Bing, a novelist and columnist for Fortune magazine, recently published an enlightening – let alone hilarious – piece on his blog. Titled “When Smart People Use Bad Grammar,” the article describes the common confusion around the usage of the personal pronouns “I” and “me.”

I’m sitting at a lounge last week in Los Angeles with a top business reporter. True, we’re drinking, but that doesn’t really explain what happens next. I’m conversing with him about something that doesn’t really concern you, and things get kind of confidential, and I ask for his promise that the matter will remain off the record. ”Don’t worry,” says the reporter, a graduate of a fine college and probably a reputable journalism school. “That will just be between you and I.”

And here is his explanation on the proper usage:

For the record, and for those who even marginally care: this is really easy. The word “I” is used when the You in questions is the subject of a sentence. “I” does things. “I like that,” you say. You don’t say, “Me like that,” unless you are Tarzan. “Me” makes his appearance when things are done to You. “He really screwed me on that deal,” is both a common occurrence and correct usage.

If you want to read more about this topic, we covered the issue on the article “Me, Myself, and I.”

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7 thoughts on “Smart People, Bad Grammar”

  1. The explanation really doesn’t explain this particular use, in “… between you and I”, because “I” is neither the subject nor the object in this sentence. The subject is “That” (as it’s the thing that “will be”) and I don’t think there is an object.

    So, what to do in the case when “I”/”me” is neither subject nor object? Is it always “I” then?

  2. I have always used the simple test that if you would replace the “you and I/me” expression with “we”, then it is “you and I”. Alternatively, if you would replace it with “us” than it is “you and me”.

  3. Thomas, it depends on the context. In “between you and me” you know that between is a preposition, and pronouns after prepositions go in the accusative form, that is why you need to use “me” and not “I.”

  4. The rules for using the pronoun “I” versus the pronoun “me,” are as follows: The pronoun “I” is used in the subjective case; that is, “I” is always used in three ways: 1) as the subject of the sentence, 2) after a linking verb, or 3) after the words “than” or “as” when used in comparison. The word “me” is used in the objective case; that is, it is used: 1) as the object of the prepostion, 2) the object of the verb, or 3) after “than” or “as” when not used in comparisons.
    Subjective Case
    1) I am going to the store.
    2) It was I at the door.
    3) He makes more money than I.
    Objective Case
    1) The discussion will stay between you and me.
    2) Throw me the ball.
    3) The law applies to you as well as me.

    In response to Thomas’s inquiry, the subject in the word group “That will just be between you and I,” is not “That.” There is no subject in this word group. It is implied rather than stated. FYI, the word “that” is never the subject. The problem is that we tend to write like we speak, and we speak incorrectly (technically) all the time, but we need to be more fastidious when writing.
    I hope this helps.

  5. Oh dear, what can be more irritating than those who push prescriptivist poppycock and can’t even explain their own bogus rules properly.

    To determine which pronoun is used you must find the clause or phrase the pronoun belongs to and determine what role the pronoun plays in that clause. Forget about the sentence as a whole. The accusative case form “I” is used in the subject position, and the accusative (or objective) form is used in the objective position. Prepositions (prepositional phrases) always govern objective form pronouns.

    But English once had about eight case forms that actually marked the grammatical role they went with. This case system and many of the case forms themselves have been shed and in modern English grammatical role is marked by word order and prepositions.

    This is probably why so many people get these “wrong” — they no longer have any real grammatical, logical, semantic, or syntactical function.

    And the latest grammar books have quite a different take on the whole business.

  6. I made a slip in my post above. In the second paragraph in its second sentence my first reference to “accusative” should have read “nominative”.

    There is widely held idea that people use “myself” “incorrectly” because they are afraid of saying “me”. But language is in a constant state of flux and these pronouns seem to be taking on new nuances of meaning, especially in the business world. “Myself”, and “Yourself” are more formal, distant, and general than “me” and “you”.

    1) “Get it to me my noon tomorrow”.
    2) “Please send it to myself by noon tomorrow”.

    The two sentences have a difference in register. Perhaps the problem is that Stanley Bing is not so bright and lacks both the pragmatic competence and insight to understand some of the finer nuances of his colleagues’ use of language. His explanation of the difference between “I” and “me” is so grossly oversimplified as to be all but useless.

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