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Bad grammar is killing me

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In the words of a great American nautical hero, “I’ve had all I can stands. I can’t stands no more!” I’m talking about bad grammar. That’s right—bad grammar, a bad practice that is becoming commonplace. I hear TV journalists using bad grammar.  I see grammatical errors in newspapers and books. Worse yet, I hear bad grammar from lawyers.

Language is the most important tool lawyers employ. It is the palette from which we convey ideas and the means by which we persuade and influence. Language is what our profession is all about, and we should all be masters in its use.

So, where does one turn for help with grammar questions? Simple—there are plenty of resources available, and I reviewed three before writing this piece.[1] I also enjoy an advantage provided by my parents. I was rigorously schooled on the subject of grammar by Dominican nuns (aka the penguins) during my formative years.

So, let’s begin with some of the more common examples of bad grammar. The first is, “Him and I played on the same softball team.” What? I hear this somewhat routinely. Would you say, “Him played on the same softball team”?[2]  Of course not. “Him” has to follow a preposition (for those of you not trained by the penguins, prepositions are words such as “to” or “with”) and cannot be the subject of a sentence. Proper grammar demands that one say, “He and I played on the same softball team.”

Here’s an error I’m starting to hear all too frequently: “Return the book to Joe or I.”  Oh, how the grammar gods frown when they hear this. Would you say, “Return the book to I”? Of course not. You would say, “Return the book to me,” which means you should say, “Return the book to Joe or me.”

An error related to the one above is, “It is Debbie and I’s anniversary.” Agggghhh!  Please stop the madness! Would you say, “It is I’s anniversary”?  Of course not.  You would say, “It is my anniversary.” There are eyes, and there are ayes, but there is no I’s. There never was, and there never will be. Who started this trend? In the world of grammar, this type of language abuse is akin to a capital crime.

Here’s one I am starting to see in the newspapers: “The couple have two children.”  Wait a minute—a couple is but one unit, and so the word “has” should be used, as in, “The couple has two children.” Don’t be led astray by the fact that a couple is composed of two people. As we say in court, that’s irrelevant.

A close cousin of this error concerns the word data.  I’m starting to see with some regularity the phrase, “The data are inconclusive.” I suppose some modern linguist concluded that, because it refers to multiple bits of information, the word data is plural. Really? So, by analogy would you say, “The army are advancing”?  Of course not.  Sure, an army is composed of many soldiers, but an army itself comprises a single unit. Besides, “the army are advancing” sounds dumb—almost as dumb as “the data are inconclusive.” “The data is inconclusive” is the way to go.

Here’s another common mistake: “If anyone calls, tell them I’m out and schedule them for a meeting.” Why use the word “them” when we’re talking about “anyone,” which refers to single person. The correct statement is, “If anyone calls, tell him I’m out and schedule him for a meeting.”  Ah, but that’s politically incorrect, some would say. To avoid any gender preference, the PC police mandate that we say, “If anyone calls, tell him or her I’m out and schedule him or her for a meeting.” Really?  This stuff makes my head explode.

Is submission to political correctness so necessary that we are forced to use stilted language? Oh, puhhhhlease. Do people really get offended over this stuff?  Doesn’t, “If anyone calls, tell him I’m out and schedule him for an appointment” sound better? Here’s my view: if anybody has a problem with what I’m saying, he can give me a call.

For those of you who feel constrained to oblige the dictates of the PC police but still strive for some modicum of eloquence, here’s another option. Try to avoid using a pronoun. “If anyone calls, please say that I’m out and schedule the caller for an appointment.” There you go—problem avoided.

Now, for the next question: is there a moral imperative to correcting someone’s bad grammar in public?








[1]  Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay by Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis; Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner; Good Grief, Good Grammar by Dianna Booher.

[2]   Yes, I know. The placement of the question mark in this sentence raises punctuation questions. That’s an issue for another day.

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