It’s Between You and Me

As an English major, former English teacher and current editor and writer, I believe that good (correct) grammar, punctuation and spelling contribute to effective communication. I don’t claim to have perfect grammar or that I never make a mistake when writing or speaking, and I know that some grammarians and writers are bigger sticklers for absolute correctness than others. I also know that language changes over time, and what was considered correct and easily understood 500, 200 or even 100 years ago doesn’t always communicate very well anymore. So I know I may come off as a bit of snob when I launch into a rant about some of my pet peeves in the use of the English language. But here goes anyway!

Somewhere along the way, it seems like everyone, including those at the highest levels of educated American society, has come to the conclusion that it is correct to use the subjective pronoun (I) instead of the objective pronoun (me) in sentences like this: “This problem is between you and I” or “It seems to Tom and I that we’re really smart now.” The correct usage is this: “This problem is between you and ME” and “It seems to Tom and ME that we’re really smart now.” I think I know why this mistake is made. In school, it is drummed into students that it is incorrect to say “Me and Tom [or Tom and me] think we’re really smart” and correct to say “Tom and I think we’re really smart.” So in an attempt to be certain they never make that error and always speak correctly, many people overcompensate and always use “I.”

You don’t need to understand the grammar-techy language and rules to use the correct pronoun: There is a really simple way to test yourself: just ask whether you would say “it seems to I and Tom that…” or “between I and you”? I’m pretty sure most people would say no, of course not.

I used to think this was a small error afflicting only a few people, but I have come to realize it is rampant – from the highest levels of our society on down to common folk. As Dale and I watch TV and listen to well-informed people making this mistake repeatedly (and we turn to each other and simultaneously say ARGH!), we are beginning to think the rule is even being taught incorrectly in school. Perhaps teachers were so traumatized by being taught repeatedly that “me and Tom” is incorrect as a subject that they have unwittingly overcompensated and now teach their students to apply the rule to the wrong situations. I will say that the error is more evident in the spoken word than the written word. I suppose this is some small consolation!

Another rampant error is the misuse of “it’s” and “its.” Here the rule is simple too. “It’s” is ALWAYS a contraction/abbreviation of “it is” so if you can’t substitute “it is” in the sentence, you should not use the apostrophe and the spelling should be “its.” Here’s a classic example that I saw on Facebook right after Easter as the title of a blog post: “Lent Did It’s Job.” Would you write “Lent did it is job”? Of course not! Again, this error is becoming so ubiquitous that I despair of its ever being corrected. I see it on billboards all the time, which reinforces the error over and over again as people drive down the highway absorbing messages subliminally. And of course it doesn’t help that smart phone auto-correct functions often automatically change “its” to “it’s”! Fortunately, this error is confined to the written word.

While not really in the grammatical or spelling error category, another pet peeve of mine is the tendency to turn all kinds of nouns into verbs. Sometimes a simple noun is turned into a verb and other times verb-like endings are added to the noun to make it a verb. Here are some examples that make me cringe:

  • “task” as in “She was tasked to set the table”
  • “incentivize” as in “The children were incentivized to pick up their toys by being promised a treat when they were done”
  • “operationalize” as in “They worked hard to operationalize the principles of their organization” (this one is a favorite of bureaucracies, as I’ve noticed in my work in state government!)

I realize with this pet peeve I am probably in the minority, and these and many other examples of nouns being turned into verbs are becoming completely acceptable usage. I used to seriously dislike the word “impact” as a verb and would always edit it out when preparing other people’s articles for publication. However, a few months ago, I heard someone on public radio talk about “impact” as a verb; this person said that its usage as a verb can be traced back to about the 17th century. So I’ve relaxed a little on that one, and perhaps I’ll begin to relax on the others as well.

Somewhat related is my ongoing intense dislike of the verb “utilize.” I know I am fighting a losing battle here, but for some time I’ve been on a one-woman campaign to stamp out the “utilization of the word utilize.” I think there are very few situations where “utilize” is preferable to the simpler “use,” but I think people seem to prefer “utilize” because they think it sounds more educated or something. I don’t know whether the authors whose articles I edit ever notice, but I almost always replace their word “utilize” with “use” in any publication over which I have control!

Finally (for now) is the misuse of the word “unique.” Over the years, the Pelicans have had a lot of fun with this one. Technically, something can be described as unique only if it is the only one of its kind. Therefore, you can’t qualify unique to describe something as “quite unique,” “pretty unique,” “rather unique,” “sort of unique,” or “very unique.” It’s either unique or it isn’t, one of a kind or not; the word needs no extra qualifier. I do acknowledge, however, that if you look up the word in the dictionary, you will now find “not typical, unusual” among the definitions (the last definition, I might point out!), making it appropriate to add a qualifier, as in “her dress was very unique” or “very unusual.” The meaning is apparently shifting, as happens over time. So perhaps I should give up and accept the inevitable.

I could go on: the difference between affect and effect; except and accept; you’re and your; they’re, there and their. What scares me is that sometimes when I’m writing or typing quickly, the wrong word/spelling comes out of my pen or fingers, and I have this momentary flash of panic that I’m becoming like all those people I criticize! I suppose that should make me not only more gracious about the mistakes of others but also more humble, knowing I too make mistakes. Maybe it does, but I still long for a time when I can go a whole week without hearing someone say, “just between you and I.” ARGH!

What’s your language pet peeve?

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4 thoughts on “It’s Between You and Me

  1. Preach it, sister. AMEN. Anyway–right there with you. And the newest pet peeve I am noticing is that local TV station announcers mangle English daily. Last evening’s news the reporter talked about a police car roll over in which the officer and the CANINE dog were injured. I blurted out–what other kind of dog is there?
    I have been known to fire off emails to local TV and radio stations when glaring grammatic mistakes are made. Hmmm–I do not get any responses.
    Of course, anyone who has taught English writing has a briefcase full of hilarious errors. One of my favorites was when a student wrote about someone who went to the altEr to get married. An inadvertent pun.
    The English language is rich, and the rules of grammar as well as word usage do change. I loved teaching and making a point of such changes to students. Word usage change is particularly fun to work with. Witness how a word such as “hussy” has changed over time.
    Sadly, I found that my enthusiasm was not infective and most students just yawned, and went back to texting. LOL. (Methinks we have another culprit in the ongoing deterioration of the mother tongue.)
    At least I don’t correct people out loud when they are speaking directly to me, as my paternal grandfather is reported to have done.

  2. To Donna:
    A story of your Grandfather I like: Ben Myers told me that as a student at Messiah College when they would pass John Climenhaga on the walk one of the young fellows would say “Where’s he at?” And my father would invariably stop them and say, “Young man, just before the at.”
    To Harriett: Language is fluid and changing as you point out. When I was back in Zambia in 1989 I noted there were many more short cuts in spoken CiTonga than when we lived there in the 1940s & 50s. And I see the same thing on Facebook with some of my Tonga FB Friends.

  3. Pingback: The Pelicans Reprised | Pieces of Peace

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