Grammar Day, 2016

I see I didn’t bother writing anything for last year’s Grammar Day. I was probably busy working. I’m sure I wasn’t writing haiku. (Why would I write haiku, you ask? Because of the annual ACES Grammar Day Haiku contest.)

But, I digress. While pondering what to write for this year, I picked up my copy of Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar (Cambridge 2005) and flipped idly through its pages. Scattered throughout the text (not randomly, of course, but with forethought) are “Prescriptive grammar notes.” If you don’t know what “prescriptive” means, here’s a link to my post about the different types of grammar. I’ll wait while you go read. ::sips coffee::

All right. These notes, then, are (to my way of thinking) little flags for the more prescriptive grammarians to warn them that “not everyone agrees with you, and here’s why.” The one that stopped me dead in my tracks is this:

“The pattern in [They invited Sandy and I.] is heard constantly in the conversation of people whose status as speakers of Standard English is clear, but it is nevertheless condemned as incorrect or illiterate by many usage manuals. For this reason it is not so common in print; editors will often ‘correct’ it. . . . Those who condemn it simply assume that the case of a pronoun in a coordination must be the same as when it stands alone. Actual usage is in conflict with this assumption.”

Here’s where I stand up and say “Hi, I’m Karen, and on this point I’m a prescriptivist. I’d like to get better, though.” The example is worse than nails on a chalkboard to me; it’s more like that high-pitched whine from a machine running somewhere nearby, but not so close that you can identify the machine or the problem that’s causing the whining. It’s constant, and annoying, and crazymaking. Nails on a chalkboard? Pfft. That’s a brief screech and it’s done. This goes on. And on. And on. Not because the sentence is so long, but because I (I cannot and will not speak for you) hear it all around me, like that whining machine. And I don’t dare correct the speakers, because that’s just plain rude. I smile and keep walking.

“Condemned as incorrect or illiterate by many usage manuals.” Indeed, here’s what Bryan A. Garner has to say about using “I” in the object position (using a nominative/subjective case pronoun where grammar says an accusative/objective case pronoun is required): “Using [I] in the objective case simply creates doubts about the speaker’s ability to handle the language.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage is less accusatory. (Not accusative. Accusatory.) “You are probably safe in retaining ‘between you and I’ in your casual speech, if it exists there naturally, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. . . . It seems to have no place in modern edited prose.”

Patricia T. O’Conner comes down firmly on the “me” side of this as well, in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Like me, she suggests removing the additional nouns/pronouns to see what sounds correct, and letting that decision be the guide. Example: “for him and I,” or “for him and me?” Would you EVER say “for I?” I didn’t think so. “For him and me,” then. Applying this to the original example, would you EVER say “They invited I” under any circumstances? Maybe if you were being tortured, I suppose, but otherwise? I highly doubt it. Then why say “They invited Sandy and I” if you wouldn’t say “I” if Sandy wasn’t there? That’s my logic, you see. Adding more people doesn’t change which pronoun you’d use.

But man oh man. I respect Pullum’s take on grammar, and seeing him say that, in essence, “it’s not necessarily wrong” pulled me up short this morning.

I’ll still twitch when I hear it. I’ll still “correct” it when I see it in a project I’m being paid to edit. And I still won’t use it myself.

Hi, I’m Karen, and I’m more prescriptivist than I’d like to admit in some cases. (Cases. HA HA HA.)

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