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January 18th, 2006

For good / two me versus I puzzles

by Barbara Wallraff

Dan Reisman, of Niverville, N.Y., writes: “I recently read that a certain company had shut down ‘for good.’ I understand this phrase to mean ‘permanently,’ but I’d like to know how it could mean that.”

Dear Dan: It does seem as if the right phrase in the context of shutting down a company should be “for bad,” doesn’t it? The original, complete phrase was “for good and all,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it dates back to the 16th century. Jonathan Swift, the author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” seems to have noticed, as you did, that there’s something odd about “for good.” A letter he wrote in 1711 includes the sentence “This day I left Chelsea for good (that’s a genteel phrase).” I’m afraid the OED isn’t clear, though, about how “good” in this expression relates to the normal meaning of the word. The best hint I could find is the word “valid” in the definition of the phrase: “as a valid conclusion; hence, as a final act, finally.”

While we’re on the subject of expressions that are often used in unthinking ways: another one is “thanks to.” For instance, we might read, “The company closed thanks to a downturn in the economy.” No need to thank anyone for that!

Glenn Bunnell, of Westland, Mich., writes: “Color me devastated. In a recent ‘Word Court’ column you -- my grammar guru -- wrote, ‘Maybe it’s just me.’ Would you let ‘Woe is me’ slide as well?”

Dear Glenn: Sure I would. And this time, it’s not just me. Patricia T. O’Conner, in her grammar book “Woe Is I,” writes, “Hundreds of years after the first Ophelia cried ‘Woe is me,’ only a pedant would argue that Shakespeare should have written ‘Woe is I’ or ‘Woe is unto me.’”

H.W. Fowler, the grammarian’s grammarian, coined the term “sturdy indefensibles” for ungrammatical or illogical expressions that are nonetheless standard. Fowler gives examples of these in his book “Modern English Usage” -- and the first entry on his list is “It’s me.” Since “It’s me” was already firmly established in good English usage in 1926 -- when the first edition of “Modern English Usage” was published -- I think 2006 is none too soon for you to start accepting it.

Les Myers, of Old Town, Maine, writes: “Last week I heard an articulate, well-educated pastor read a letter to his congregation from his equally well-
educated wife. The letter said, in part, ‘I thank you for the generous welcome that you have given my husband, my family and I.’ I winced at that use of ‘I.’ It should be ‘my family and me.’ My wife said, ‘Language changes. This is becoming the acceptable form because it’s been used in error for too long.’ Your opinion?”

Dear Les: Never mind what I just told Glenn. Yes, language changes, but standard usage hasn’t changed about this. The pastor’s wife would never have made the mistake of writing “Thank you for the welcome you have given I.” So she shouldn’t have written “my family and I” there either. Patricia T. O’Conner and H.W. Fowler back me up once again. O’Conner calls sentences like your example “abominations.” Fowler calls them “solecisms” -- which is a fancy way of saying they make lots of people wince, not just you.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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