Strive to keep our language clear

Published 6:41 am Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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As you can tell from my time with this newspaper, I am a scribbly sort, a lifetime fan of the word, a happy purveyor of things printed.

In short, I love our shared language.

As such, it grieves me when I see it, like a favored pet, befouled. Today you and I are going to discuss a particularly irritating befoulment.

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Not to worry. I don’t live my life sitting around, listening to my friends, and silently correcting grammatical peccadillos, real or imagined. No, I reserve my irritation for serial slayers of the language.

Before we get into our problem, let me introduce you to someone. Probably my favorite person to write about the language was James J. Kilpatrick. He was a celebrated newspaper journalist, columnist, author, and grammarian who wrote the syndicated column, “The Writer’s Art”. His book of the same name has long influenced me. We are going to borrow one of his tactics.

He often began his column by assembling what he called the Court of Peeves, Crotchets, and Irks to discuss linguistic questions, to resolve things brought before him, in short, to bring clarity to our language. And bless him, when he wrote about language, he wrote beautifully.

Let’s call his court to order to consider what I consider to be a grammatical felon.

We ask the Court to consider the phrase “between you and I”.

This is my favorite pet peeve. It is a linguistic foible so outlandish that every time I hear it, my verbs shudder, and my adverbs are newly irritated

Every time I hear “between you and I” it strikes me as about as appropriate as an air horn at a formal graduation. And, sadly, I hear it regularly.

It used to just be heard on television shows (are we surprised when a Hollywood writer gets something wrong?). Now, like a soldier-assassin sent to destroy, it has marched out of the idiot box and now camps sights-on-target in our living rooms. I’ve even heard educators use it. And that makes me truly cringe.

What, you ask, is wrong with the phrase “between you and I”? Simple. It is never, ever, ever right. For fear that I’ve not been clear enough, let me tell you when it is allowed: NEVER When should you use it: NEVER. What are the exceptions to this rule: NONE.

To explain this, we have to have a short discussion about something called cases. In grammar, the term “case” means how we categorize words according to their function in a sentence. Yes, even I yawned at how dull that sentence was, but, alas, it has to be said.

Your seventh grade English teacher would have told you that “I” is generally used as a subject, never as an object; on the other hand, “me” can only be used as an object. Was that a dull sentence, or what? Let’s take another stab at it. “I”, as the subject, is what the sentence is about. “Between you and I” is never right in that “between you and I” is never ever the subject of the sentence.

Let’s see how it works when it is used correctly: “Between you and me, word choice matters”. We use “me” because it isn’t the subject of the sentence, “word choice” is.

Have I completely lost you yet? Hang in for just one more minute.

This is what is called a hypercorrection. We had the use of “I” beaten into our brains, and now we feel that we have to use it in any formal setting. Nothing could be further from the truth. “I” has (generally) only one use—the subject (or topic) of the sentence. And when it isn’t the subject, don’t use “I”, use “me” or some other appropriate pronoun.

Why in the name of anything we care about, does this matter? It matters greatly. Language is what we use to communicate our thoughts and ideas. Rules apply. We live in a time in which it is popular to surrender all rules. Resist that. Mark Twain famously said that the difference between almost the right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Point made.

About three thousand years ago Solomon wrote “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver”. That my friends, is a simile, and a more beautiful one we are not likely to find. The right word matters.

Let us strive to keep our language clear, to use it wisely, to guard its rules. And remember—speak simply.

Just between you and me.