One of my most important guidelines about expository writing is to be clear. It turns out that in some circumstances you can be clear and still confuse. The auto sales industry can do this at least two ways: Supply too much information, or not enough.
First, the not-enough-info option: It’s called sidewinding. A salesman gets his hands on a car not owned by the dealership, and sells it as if it were. The buyer is none the wiser unless they need to bring in the car for service later. And the dealership doesn’t get its commission. This happened to me a couple decades back. The dealer took care of the needed repair, and the salesman lost his job.
The other one happens in a lot of industries that involve sales, and you probably heard of it. The good old Bait and Switch. Something is offered for sale, and then the thing you want isn’t available but they have something else you can buy. The something else always works in the seller’s favor, and if it’s done right, the buyer is pretty happy. I ran into a blog post by Scott Adams (writer of Dilbert) about his experience with the bait and switch. Go read it. It’s too long for me to quote, but it’s worth reading. Here’s the link again. I think this version of the bait and switch routine is somehow related to the discovery that increasing one’s choices does not increase one’s happiness.
And since this is a writing blog, I had to find something in Scott’s post to point out. This is a subtle one:
So customers either accept the bait-and-switch or they don’t buy a truck, like me.
Scott saves himself here with that comma after “truck,” making it clear that the truck is not like him, but the refusal to buy was like what he did. (I almost wrote “like him,” which would have fallen into the same trap). The rule is to make the pronoun (me or I) agree with what you’re actually comparing. “Me” would be correct if it was “a truck like me,” but it has to be “I” if it’s “refused to purchase, like I refused.” “Like” is so close to the pronoun that we make the pronoun’s case go with “like” instead of with “don’t buy.”
Just be clear—don’t let your reader think you’re like a truck.
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I suspect that more than once in grade school you experienced a conversation something like this:
You: Hey! Me and Tommy want to go swing on the swings.
Teacher: Tommy and I.
This correction of two mistakes at once has led to the unfortunate habit, mostly in the better educated, of saying things like “…between Tom and I.”
We’ve been over the issue of case before. (Subjects use I and objects use me.)
But what about putting Tom first? If you followed that link, You saw that the end of the post makes passing reference to that question of why Tom goes first, but I want to go into it a little more now. (If you didn’t follow the link: I said that the reason for putting Tom first is humility, not grammar.) That’s not quite the whole rule. The rest of the rule is:
Put the most important one first.
I see this exercised a lot in scientific writing. Suppose your team led the research, but others participated, too. Putting your team first makes sense because it fits the relationship. I ran into this recently in the March 2016 Scientific American, page 68, near the top of the first column:
We and other developmental biologists have spent the past few decades trying to understand how this cellular orientation system works.
The article is mainly about their team, but they want to give credit to others working in the same field. That’s okay. In fact, it’s humble to include the others at all.
Now you and Tommy can go play on the swing in peace!
One principle of expository writing is that it be clear. This means, partly, that you can immediately tell what each word means. Many many words have more than one meaning, so you have to be careful if you want to be clear.
If you want to be funny, though (an antithesis, perhaps, of writing clearly) these multiple-meaning words provide a font of material. Here’s a comic, Fox Trot, that makes passing reference to correct use of case (I/me) but uses two words ambiguously to create humor. Can you tell what the two words are?
It occurred to me that a third word, “English,” could also have two meanings—the country or the language. (Snicker.)
That is, I should repeat mentioning it so you won’t do it! I’m pretty sure nobody memorizes my little grammar lessons, and besides, repetition is the mother of learning, right?
Anyway, in English, we use the objective case for words that are objects of prepositions and direct objects. That means me instead of I, them instead of they. Other languages, that have more cases, can use any of several other cases with prepositions. We say their prepositions take the accusative, or the dative, or the genitive. But nobody uses the nominative with prepositions. Nominative is reserved for the subjects of sentences.
English speakers tend to get confused when their prepositions and verbs have a compound object. I think this error descends from a common correction in sixth grade English class that I won’t get into right now. So we say, the prize goes to Bill and Bob, or Tom whipped Bill and Bob, which are correct. (Nouns in English don’t show case except for the possessive.) But when we use pronouns (which do show case), lots of folks revert to the nominative, and they say it the way the third cell in this comic says it. I’m pretty sure Scott Meyer knows the correct way to use a compound direct object, but he drew his character as someone who doesn’t. Thank you, Scott, for giving me a good example of what not to say!
I don’t think it’s correct for a kid to whip his parents, but if Dad is describing it, he should say, “his mother and me.”
I know I mention case a lot, but I like to post comics about grammar, and I happened to run into one that uses case both correctly and incorrectly in a construction that can be tricky to get right—comparison. First the comic.
I like Scott Meyer’s work because of his clever humor. Apparently that’s Scott on the right. I don’t know if the fellow on the left represents an actual person, but usually he’s the one who makes the mistakes. This time he gets it right and Scott makes the mistake. Look at the first speech.
I heard the boss yelling. Did you tell him that you’re smarter than him again?
Remember the last post, about copulatives and predicate nominatives? Yup, he should have said “…you’re smarter than he.” The uncompressed sentence is “…that you are smarter than he is.” “He” sounds correct now, doesn’t it?
Go to the last cell, first speech.
Why shouldn’t I be able to tell people that I’m smarter than they?
“They” is correct! The expanded sentence is “…I am smarter than they are.” Sounds right, doesn’t it?
As a footnote, I should point out that the captions on to two last cells use “its” and “it’s” correctly. But you noticed that, didn’t you?