Tools to Tackle Grammar Gaffes

Oh my. We all have our peccadillos when it comes to English, don’t we? If I addressed them all, we’d be here til next year. So I’ll just give you the cheats…uh, tips I use most often.

Don’t be afraid of me.

Poor ol’ me has been sorely maligned, as it should be when used incorrectly. Usage such as “Jim n’ me will be happy to talk with you” stirs images of uneducated, backward folk who wouldn’t know a first-person, singular pronoun if it bit them on their knobby noses. But the answer is not to eschew me in favor of what some consider the more intelligent sounding I—not unless the usage is correct. So how do you know? Well, I could wax eloquent on subjects and objects in a sentence, but I’ve learned that there are many out there—yes, even writers– who can’t identify such in a sentence. As one such writer pointed out to me recently, grammar school was a looooong time ago. So here’s a simple test. Ask yourself, “If I took the other person out of the sentence, would the proper pronoun be I or me?” Let’s use the Jim sentence from last week: “Just give Jim and I a call” would become “Just give I a call.” Nope. Doesn’t work. So this should be, “Just give Jim and me a call…” Now let’s take Jim out of today’s me sentence: “Me will be happy to talk with you.” Unless you’re two years old, that just doesn’t work. So bring on the I! “Jim and I will be happy to talk with you.”

Myself reflects me or I.

Words like myself, himself, herself, themselves are…wait for it…reflexive pronouns. They can only refer back to the subject of a sentenc—oops. Sorry. Hmmm…how about this: Don’t worry about the why of it, just remember Myself reflects me or I. Think about it. What do you need to have a reflection? Someone looking in the window, mirror, etc. So you can’t use a self pronoun unless you’ve already used I or me  or him (and so on) in the sentence. For example, last week’s line from the commercial–“This product was tested by myself”–doesn’t work, because there’s no I or me that comes before the reflection. Now, it could say “I myself tested this product.” That’s fine, because you’ve got I to create the reflection. Should be, “This product has been tested by me and others in the medical field…” (I’m not even going to address the passive voice used in the commercial…sheesh!)

Fewer counts, less doesn’t.

If you can count the individual items you’re referring to one by one, use fewer. So in the grocery line, it’s “10 items or fewer” because you can count the individual items. Or “There are fewer steps than you imagine to getting this right,” because you can count the steps. But it’s “There’s less water in my glass than in Steve’s” because you can’t get in there and count each bit of H2O individually. Go ahead. Try it. I dare ya.

Which doesn’t matter.

Which phrases are parenthetical, meaning they’re plopped into sentences to give information you may want to know but they don’t alter the meaning of the sentence. For example, “The phrase ‘Which doesn’t matter,’ which Karen shared with us in her blog, helps you know when to use which or that.” If you pull “which Karen shared with us in her blog” out of the sentence, it still has the same overall meaning (that the phrase helps you know what to do): “The phrase ‘Which doesn’t matter’ helps you know when to use which or that.” However, consider: “The key phrase that Karen uses to know when to use which or that is ‘Which doesn’t matter.’” This sentence isn’t so much about the phrase itself, but about the fact that it’s the phrase I use. If you pull “that Karen uses” from the sentence, the overall meaning is changed and the sentence is again about the phrase, not my use of the phrase.

Okay, I think that’s enough for today. I’ll finish up next week, so feel free to ask questions or suggest issues for me to tackle.

19 Responses to Tools to Tackle Grammar Gaffes

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton October 7, 2015 at 3:22 am #

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for the refresher course! I don’t use the word which very often, and I’m trying to cut back on ‘that.’ Now I’m wondering if ‘which’ doesn’t matter, should I ever use it?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 7, 2015 at 8:16 am #

      Jackie, yes, when you want to make a parenthetical comment in a sentence. I’m not actually saying it doesn’t matter at all, just that if the phrase can be removed without making a difference in the meaning of the sentence, which is the case with this phrase that I just inserted, you need to use WHICH. But as you can see, while the inserted phrase doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, it does help to clarify. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Ane Mulligan October 7, 2015 at 5:34 am #

    I’m so glad you brought this up. It’s one of my pet peeves!! Thanks, Karen! Now let’s hope everyone reads it.

  3. Avatar
    Carol Ashby October 7, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    Another fun post for grammar lovers!

    The I/me misusage was one I worked to train my kids to avoid. I used the “drop the other person” test with them, too. They knew when to use subject-case “I” and object-case “me” properly, but they kept slipping into the patterns of their peers when they spoke. I’d be a wealthier woman if I had a dollar for every time I corrected them at home. Aargh!

    Maybe the best cure for using the wrong form would be requiring a foreign language that makes you analyze the grammatical role of each noun on the fly. German has four noun cases, Russian six, and Latin seven. I’d vote for Latin since it has the most cases and doesn’t require learning a new alphabet. It was required in 7th grade in my school. It built English vocabulary, and it made German and Russian easy to learn. In the ‘70s, you had to be able to translate German, Russian, or French to get a chemistry degree.

    Even better, we could all look at a problem we’ve just solved and say, “Veni, vidi, vici.” It’s so much more elegant than “whoopee!”

    Usage changes with time and location. According to my 1961 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “which” could still be used to make a restriction like “that.” My Canadian mother used “which” all the time, and I had to retrain myself to use “that” instead in the 1980s. Is “which” still used like “that” in Canada and England?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 7, 2015 at 10:06 am #

      And it was in taking French for 12 years that I gained a firm understanding of the subjunctive tense! Learning another language is a great way to understand English better.

  4. Avatar
    Craig Pynn October 7, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    Thanks for so clearly addressing my pettest peeve of all: the confusion around “me” and “I.” To hear many folks, including my pastor, who should know better, it seems as if “me” is passing from the English language.

  5. Avatar
    Tedd Galloway October 7, 2015 at 9:16 am #

    I think, I believe, I know that I’m more confused now then I was yesterday. Is there a software app that any one would recommend?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 7, 2015 at 10:12 am #

      Check our or Grammar App by Tap to Learn. Or a couple of great books are:

      Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande
      Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

  6. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield October 7, 2015 at 9:21 am #

    In my work as a dissertation consultant, I’ve seen the same errors from highly-educated people so often that I wrote a series of “Learning Resources,” which are pages that address just one problem in a somewhat lighthearted way. I often try to make the examples humorous. Instead of re-explaining each time I encounter the error, I can attach a Learning Resource page as a file and just direct the scholar’s attention to that. One client told me she prints them all and has them pinned up all around her computer desk for reference as she continues to write. 🙂

    One of the most common errors I see is in “number,” as in singular and plural. This pops up in both subject/verb agreement (particularly if there is a prepositional phrase or two between the subject and verb) and pronoun/antecedent agreement (especially with the generic use of “they”) in virtually every chapter I review. Would you like to tackle “number” next?

    • Avatar
      Karen Ball October 7, 2015 at 10:13 am #

      Give me a sentence as an example…

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby October 7, 2015 at 10:34 am #

      The number problem is difficult because it is considered politically incorrect to use he/him for a singular. People default to the incorrect but comfortable they/them.

      What is one to do about this? Singular/plural disagreements grind my gears (can you tell I drive stick shifts?), but sometimes one cannot easily rephrase to the gender-neutral plural. I sometimes use the he/she or her/him format, but it is clumsy to read aloud.

  7. Avatar
    Sarah Bennett October 7, 2015 at 9:33 am #

    And then there’s the mistake of forgetting to put on my glasses (prior to a cup of coffee) and wondering why your blog is about “grammar giraffes.”

  8. Avatar
    Karen Ball October 7, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Oh, that’s wonderful! What a great title for a book!

  9. Avatar
    Tammy Fish October 7, 2015 at 10:26 am #

    I taught grammar for years and still struggle with the concept of “which” and “that”. Word document is constantly correcting my usage when I feel the sentence is correct. Does anyone else experience this problem?

    For example, here are two sentences. Word tells me that the second selection is incorrect:

    1.) The door that opened by the wind slammed into the wall.

    2.) The door, which opened by the wind, slammed into the wall.

    Now, interestingly if I switch the “by” to “in”, the second sentence is accepted. Granted, the sentence flows better, but grammatically, I should be able to substitute either preposition without changing the functionality of the sentence….. What am I missing?

  10. Avatar
    rochellino October 7, 2015 at 10:44 am #

    Linda, loved your comment! Most of your clients are destined to imminently acquire esteemed titles before their name and letter designations after. “Doctor” and “PhD” as part of one’s name still holds
    high esteem in most circles in our seemingly devolving society. For the most part it seems their lives will be changed immediately, drastically and permanently to the positive for its duration upon the conferring of those designations.

    Each of their stories later in life, without necessarily personally identifying them, could make quite an interesting book. I personally know a PhD that works the counter of a cigar store as a sales employee at a modest but respectable wage. The owner had a small chain of them and he and I were great friends. I remarked to him that I noticed that one of his employees was particularly exemplary with his dedication, service and courtesy to each of his mostly affluent customers, everybody really liked him. The owner said “yeah, did you know that he has a PhD” . I said “No, I had no idea”.

    So I asked the employee why, with his PhD degree, was he doing what some would consider a rather unskilled job. His answer was “Its what I enjoy doing”. I pressed on and said why did you get a PhD then? His answer was refreshingly honest, without remorse and surprising. He said, “It kept me out of Vietnam and I didn’t have to pay back my student loans as long as I was in school. So I stayed.”
    Life is such. I knew he worked so hard, had immense talent, intellect and social skills and then chose this career. I could understand it but still was blown away with “what could be” (unused potential) instead of “what is” (reality). I was apprehensive that this highly educated and intelligent person might suspect me of employing a type of socratic irony when in fact I truly was ignorant of the facts.

    One thing did shine through loud and clear though, HE WAS HAPPY.
    I didn’t always feel that was the case of some of the impeccably dressed and highly successful customers.

    I also know lawyers, doctors and such that quit early or mid career for various reasons. (even sometimes to be a “writer”, go figure!) Their reasons are usually quite intriguing. I judge not, just learn.

    Proverbs 3:13
    Happy is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gets understanding

  11. Avatar
    Ann Shorey October 7, 2015 at 11:43 am #

    Hi Karen, Here’s something I’ve seen and heard more and more lately, and it jumps out and stabs me every time: People who say things like, “He graduated college.” –or high school, or whatever. Shouldn’t they say “He graduated from college.”? Since when is “from” unnecessary in this instance??

  12. Avatar
    Sandra Allen Lovelace October 7, 2015 at 8:02 pm #

    Thank you for the fewer, less trick. I’m sure it will come in handy.

  13. Avatar
    Shelley Neese October 8, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    I wish I could act like I didn’t need these reminders. But I have just raked through my manuscript double checking for all these mistakes. Guilty as charged. Don’t tell my agent Dan Balow!

  14. Avatar
    Teresa Pesce October 9, 2015 at 10:16 am #

    Oh excellent!! Easy to remember – important, helpful. Probably a lot like you! 🙂

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