Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sending thanks to sharp-eyed readers

When I signed on to write these columns, my wife said, “Do you have enough to write about?” I laughed, saying: “I have enough material to write several per day.” Get this: Today marks the beginning of this column’s 4th year, and one of the reasons it remains easy is that you, readers nonpareil, have an endless supply of topics that you ask me to address.

Without any contest, the # 1 complaint that prompts readers to write to me, and I do mean far and away the most deeply felt, the most complained about, the favorite by far (get the picture? this is the big enchilada) deals with the improper use of personal pronouns.

It is a widespread problem area, I’ll admit. Here’s an example, part of an eloquent email from Reader Page after the last presidential campaign: “I've noticed within the past few years that often pronouns are used incorrectly, especially in the objective case. Our own president-elect, whom I admire and support, erred in an instance during his first press conference after the election. Mr. Obama said that President Bush had ‘graciously invited Michelle and I’ to the White House.

“This is a case,” she goes on, “where folks will argue with you about ‘I or me,’ saying that their teachers and mothers insisted that they always say ‘So-and-so and I,’ regardless of case. I've heard lawyers do it, preachers do it, school principals do it, college professors do it, CEOs do it, your best friend does it and now, presidents-elect do it. I guess I'll forgive him, but we need to give him a bit of help in the good grammar department.”

I touched on the problem in the November 2007 column (, but even if we devoted every column to it, the misuse wouldn’t go away. In case you’re reading a print version of this column now, and can’t easily click on the link to the earlier column, here is a portion of what I proposed as a solution.

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.”

The reader complaint that probably comes in second — although it truly represents an infinitesimal fraction of letters compared to the first —deals with using apostrophes incorrectly to form plurals. We have covered that before, too, talking about dogs and cats versus dog’s and cat’s. I think it’s still a common complaint because the error’s easy to find. (Were you on heightened alert when you saw “error’s”? I wanted to stick in a contraction, where the apostrophe stands for the “i” in “error is,” to show an apostrophe in one of its legitimate uses.)

Here’s an example, this one from Reader Scott: “I went to the local cafe Monday and noticed that the menu featured white beans and pinto's. The lady manager stopped and asked if everything was OK. I couldn’t help it; I said: ‘I see you have added white beans and pintos to your menu.’ She said: ‘Honey, we’ve always had them.’ I said, ‘Oh look, there is an apostrophe after the word pinto.’ She blithely explained, ‘That's to take the place of the word beans.’

Scott adds that as he drove home, he glanced at a sign in front of his neighborhood Arby’s. The sign sported an arrow and said “Delivery’s.”

Reader Rusty emailed me this note: “Yes, that wandering apostrophe has landed in another strange place. A sign in North Asheboro offers Cash For Junk Car's.”

While we’re with Reader Rusty, let me give you one more he sent: “Don't want to be a pest, but just had to pass along this wonderful sign observed by my wife today at a store: No Credit Card Orders For Under $10 Excepted. We have no idea what this may mean.”

That’s a good one. My guess is that the policy calls for credit cards to be accepted only for orders of $10 or more. Say, for a big ole mess of pinto’s.


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