Why People use “I” after a Preposition

rogersgeorge on March 10th, 2017

Because your grade-school English teacher corrected two mistakes at once.

You’d say something like the first three words in this Jump Start comic by Robb Armstrong:

The first “mistake” is putting yourself first when you mention yourself and someone else. Putting yourself first is perfectly grammatical; doing so isn’t humble, though. In our culture, we think mentioning yourself last is more polite, but I have seen scientific writing in which the team leader put himself first. Something like “I and my colleagues performed a series of experiments,” which makes sense if the colleagues were only helping out.

The second mistake is a real one, using “me” as the subject. If you hadn’t happened to mention that other person, you wouldn’t have gotten it wrong—no ones says “Me went to the store.” Well, unless they’re being deliberately funny.

The problem is that correcting two things at once is a bit of overload for a young mind, so you don’t notice that you have a compound subject in the corrected sentence, and later when you mention your friend and yourself after a preposition, you follow the whole double correction and say something like “The teacher really gave it to Tim and I.”

I remember being in a car once with a bunch of students, and I happened to use “[someone] and me” after a preposition, and one of the students delightfully corrected me for saying “me.” I praised her for being alert, and explained my sentence with a short version of this post. I have no idea whether any of the occupants of the car changed their manner of speaking. Oh well.

PS—wouldn’t you know, I ran into this same mistake the same day I saw that Jump Start. This one is Rip Haywire. The mistake is in the middle of cell 5, though I think some of you can relate to the top row of cells…

…and here’s someone, The Norm, who made the “corrected” mistake. Cell 3:

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Funny thing about Infinitives

rogersgeorge on October 13th, 2016

Did you know that infinitives can have a subject? Normally we think of the infinitive form of a verb as the form we use when we refer to the verb itself; it’s the citation form. We use it to mean the verb itself without anyone doing anything about it. Think of Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet:

To be or not to be, that is the question.

In fact, this construction treats the verb itself as a noun.

But that’s not the funny thing I’m thinking of regarding infinitives. The funny thing is (1) that infinitives can have a subject, just like a regular verb and (2) the subject is not in the nominative case!  Sometimes the subject is in the possessive. In Tennyson, for example:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:

Usually the subject is in the objective case:

He helped me to fix the car
I want him to get the prize

Which leads me to the Pickles comic that encouraged me to think about all this. (She gets it wrong, by the way—should be “whom.”)

Pickles

Why to avoid the Passive Voice

rogersgeorge on September 27th, 2016

Perhaps the most famous statement in the passive was “Mistakes were made.” (Which has become a common saying, but the first use appears to be in Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union address, in reference to the Iran-contra scandal.)

People use the passive to depersonalize something or to avoid mentioning who did whatever the sentence is talking about. In other words, avoid responsibility. Instruction manuals are notorious for using the passive. Stuff like this:

The flange is fastened with three screws.

When they mean

Fasten the flange with three screws.

Or maybe they meant (how do you tell? You can’t.)

To ensure that the flange won’t come off, we used three screws to fasten it.

Here’s another one I see with some regularity:

Donations are appreciated.

Besides being a way to avoid responsibility, the passive is not as clear as a sentence in the active voice. Recently I read an interesting article in Priceonomics about why some people claim such high fees for giving a speech. The article started with a list of speakers and their fees. At the end, they had this:

Fees are gathered mainly from the websites of speaking agencies. Some fee ranges may be outdated or inflated.

Who does the gathering? He used the present tense, which applies to actions that are customary. Is this how the general public does it? It turned out that in this case the writer was referring to himself, and how he built the table. He should have said something like this:

I gathered the fees for this table mainly from the websites of speaking agencies. Some fee ranges might be outdated or inflated.

Now you have a nice reference that tells you the source of the information, and you know he didn’t talk to a lot of these speakers directly.

Be Agreeable! part 2

rogersgeorge on June 9th, 2016

Last time we looked at compound subjects. This time we look at hard-to-find subjects. Read the first cell of this comic:

Ben

What’s the subject? It’s “last,” not “tulips”! Liv got it right.

We often add information about the subject of a sentence before we get to the verb, and that information doesn’t have to agree in number with the subject it’s referring to. Sometimes that information can be lengthy, and the subject, especially if it’s nondescript (such as Liv’s “last”), is easy to get lost. The temptation is to make the verb agree with the closest noun, so be careful.

Sometimes you don’t even have a nice neat noun for a subject, either. Look at this, from a recent Gizmag article:

But what exactly is going on beneath the atmosphere’s chaotic exterior is a question that has mystified astronomers for some time.

I made the main verb bold so you could find it. What’s its subject? It’s “what exactly is going on beneath the atmosphere’s chaotic exterior,” a noun clause with its own verb.

Finally (for now, anyway) the subject doesn’t always come before the verb. You already know this is common in questions (Do you not?) But sometimes the subject comes after the verb for effect. Here’s another sentence from the same article:

“Jupiter’s rotation once every 10 hours usually blurs radio maps, because these maps take many hours to observe,” says study co-author Robert Sault, from the University of Melbourne.

Putting the stuff about Jupiter’s rotation first has more punch than starting out with “Robert … says.”

Be Agreeable! part 1

rogersgeorge on June 7th, 2016

The technical term is subject-verb agreement. This means that if you have a plural subject, you need a plural verb form. Singular subject gets a singular verb. Third grade stuff. But sometimes it’s easy to get agreement wrong. The biggest pitfall is when you have a compound (more than one) subject. (The second pitfall is when you’re not sure what the subject is; you have so much stuff between the subject and its verb, you lose track. We’ll get to that in another post (ahem) the next one.)

Here’s the rule when you have more than one subject: If they’re joined by “and,” use a plural verb. If they’re joined by “or,” agree with the subject closest to the verb.

Planes, trains, and automobiles are types of transportation.

A plane, a train, and an automobile are in your display of transportation toys.

Trains, planes, or an automobile gets you there.

A train, a plane, or two automobiles get you there.

And now, a curve!

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the name of a movie.

If the subject is a single entity, no matter what its form, it’s singular. You have to think!

Now an exercise for you. I found this sentence on the website of a place where I used to have a job, many years ago.

A welcome stop along the Glacial Ridge Trail, the Terrace Mill and the Terrace Mill Historic District features a 1903 Vintage Flour Mill, Keystone Arch Bridge, Weir Dam, Mill Pond, Log Cabin, and a Heritage Cottage.

Is the sentence correct or not?