Polytropos Grammar Corner

. . . in which we answer reader mail! This one comes from a particularly esteemed reader:

Dear Nate,

I write because your 83 year old grandfather needs some help.

My high school teacher of English (and president of the Wisconsin English Teachers Assocation WETA) was a harsh taskmaster. She insisted that no one would get a passing grade in her class until they could distinguish the correct use of “I” and “me”, “we” and “us”, and similar pronouns. She claimed that any intelligent person, which she hoped we would become, would know the difference between a subject, an object, or what followed a preposition, and would thus use the proper pronoun.

So I have almost a visceral reaction when I hear what I believed correct for 81 years (I learned the above at home even before I went to high school) to be misspoken. I cringe when I hear a preacher proclaim that “you and me need God’s forgiveness.” Why should I believe the truth of someone who speaks in error? Hearing a successful CEO observe that “it’s been a good year for my partner and I” I say to myself “He’s rich, but he’s dumb” or “he must not have taken an evening English course when he immigrated to the States.” To be honest, this is one part of my life where I am extremely intolerant.

Imagine then my consternation when occasionally I read in your blog expressions like “it was preferable to Suanna and I”. This is my grandson Nate who writes this?! Nate: college English instructor, blogger who incisively critiques movies and novels, perceptively records the growth of his daughter, and politically echoes the New York Times slant on national affairs.

Help me. Is this the “new English” like the “new Morality”? Must I abandon my deeply held conviction about what is right and wrong? Shall I, at age 83, change my whole outlook on my mother tongue? Me needs some guidance. Me thinks you can help I. That doesn’t sound right. I need some guidance. I think you can help me.

Still searching for wisdom . . . grandpa Pekelder

Have no fear! While it is true that there _is_ a New English, different in many respects from the one taught in your grade school days, that is only because, like all living languages, English is in a constant state of evolution and change. Some of the changes are welcome, others (curse you, “Great Vowel Shift”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift!) less so, but nearly all of them inevitable. However, to the best of my knowledge, confusing pronouns in the way you describe is still an _error_, pure and simple.

The fault is mine, and mine alone. But I think it’s important that we identify the nature of the fault: sloppy editing, pure and simple. When it comes to writing, ‘sloppy editing’ is a sin pretty far down on the heinousness spectrum — certainly not so heinous as ‘a clunky, artlessly constructed sentence’ and a very far cry from ‘a poor or even deliberately misleading idea’. Your critique is incisive except insofar as it associates a grammatical error with a character flaw.

One other quibble: the editors of the New York Times chose to cave to political pressure and sit for years on a tremendously important story highlighting the abuse of executive power. I have precious little interest in echoing their “slant,” whatever that might be.