Sunday, November 18, 2007

Readers Could Care Less, Really

Years ago, when my wife and I lived in a farmhouse with enough land for horses, we bought a beautiful Appaloosa mare. My wife wisely declined my request to name the horse Spot. Over the intervening years, as we have taken on dogs, she also has resisted my impulse to name one Peeve, just for the fun of the introductions: “This is my pet, Peeve.”

Today’s column focuses on the pet peeves of readers of this column who have written to me. Here’s one of the peeviest of the peeves, one mentioned often and a long-standing complaint of mine, as well. Reader Tony says: “Have you ever heard people say they could care less about something, when they actually mean they couldn’t care less? If they could care less, then whatever they’re talking about isn’t so bad because they still care a little.”

Reader Don says: “In earlier years, when I first began to hear ‘I could care less,’ I tried to explain why ‘I couldn’t care less’ probably better expressed the intention. However, it seemed to fall on deaf ears; people didn’t understand the difference.”

If there’s something that doesn’t matter to you, then you don’t care about it. Maybe you care so little, you could not possibly care less. So don’t say you COULD care less! For heaven’s sake. This has been going on for decades, and the good readers are right — it should stop.

Don must be right about deaf ears, too. On page A1 of the paper recently was a paragraph mentioning two groups of people — those who “live by” instant messaging and “those who could care less.” If this keeps up, we’ll all stop caring.

Reader Walt, also railing against the “care less” misuse, goes on to ask me to address the use of the word “hone” for “home.” He says: “I know that a homing torpedo is one that homes in on a target. And I know that one hones a knife to sharpen it. One does not hone in on a correct answer any more than one homes one’s skills.”

Right you are, Walt. You hone to sharpen (skills or appetites or whatever), and you phone home. It’s confusing to many people, I think, simply because the two words sound so much alike.

Let’s move our peeve watch now to what seems to be an infinitely confusing area. Reader Candy writes about “for she and Bob.” Reader Wayne wants me to “take aim at the modern-day butchers of our language who hack it unmercifully with phrases like ‘between you and I.’” Reader Gene cites “He gave it to her and I.” Reader Paul gets displeased “when people use the nominative pronoun instead of the objective pronoun,” adding, “I hear this all the time, from movie stars to college graduates.” (But not from Candy, Wayne and Gene!)

It must be truly challenging, this her and me and I and we and them stuff. We can’t expect normal people to remember grammar rules from decades ago, can we, or to deal happily with terms like nominative and objective, or know what “pronouns acting as objects” means. Life is complicated enough these days, just with cell phones taking pictures.

Good news: It’s pretty easy, if you stay calm. Just take your time with the sentence and use this little ploy. When you’re deciding how to word a statement with Someone and Someone, just mentally try it without the first Someone.

Example: “The prizes went to Bob and … .” Uh-oh, to Bob and I? To Bob and me? Eliminate the first one, ole Bob, and it’s easy. The prizes go to me. So now you can comfortably (and correctly) say, “The prizes went to Bob and me.”

One more. “He told Heather and ME? I? the truth.” Wipe Heather out of it for a split second: “He told me the truth.” There ya go. It should be “He told Heather and me the truth.”

Reader Gene suggests placing parentheses around the first part. “He told (Heather and) me the truth.” That works.

Finally, here’s one that drives Reader (and Neighbor) Steve downright batty: “We should have went yesterday.” Ouch. Some mistakes become so widespread that they get accepted into standard usage. We must be vigilant here. Remember: The past participle of “go” is “gone.” What does past participle mean? It means you should have gone. GONE, you hear me? Always should have gone, never should have went. Hang tough, Steve. We’re counting on you.


No comments: