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March 29th, 2006

Me and him or him and me / goof ups? / more on times fainter

by Barbara Wallraff

Darcia Plante, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., writes: “In a recent column you said that a certain pronunciation ‘makes both me and Elster wince.’ Shouldn’t you always put yourself last? Should it have been written ‘makes both Elster and me wince’?”

Dear Darcia: I checked half a dozen usage manuals to make sure I didn’t get this wrong -- but none of them would object to “me and Elster.” The rule you’re thinking of applies only when the writer or speaker is part of the subject of the sentence. That is, if I’d said “I and Elster are ...,” that would have been bad. It’s not ungrammatical, but it is considered impolite.

Once the sentence is under way, though, whether “someone and me” is better than “me and someone” depends on the nuances of what you’re saying. In the column you mention, I meant something more like “makes me, and also Elster, wince” than like “makes Elster, and also me, wince.”

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Joel Blum, of San Francisco, writes: “Recently you wrote, ‘So they add “for” and goof their sentence up.’ Shouldn’t ‘goof’ be immediately followed by ‘up,’ so ‘up’ is not hanging out there alone? And doesn’t ‘their’ need a plural: ‘their sentences’?”

Dear Joel: Let’s look it up -- oops, I mean, let’s look up it. If I’m wrong, I’d like to find that out -- oops again. Make it “find out that.” See the problem with insisting on keeping the parts of a phrasal verb together? The question you ask about “goof” and “up” is a good one for writers to ask themselves when dealing with any expression like this. And I would agree with you if what came between “goof” and “up” were much longer, or if it were something to which the “up” might seem to belong -- for instance, “goof the sentence they wrote up.” The fact that my sentence could have read “goof up their sentence,” though, doesn’t mean it had to.

Your question about “their sentence” is another good one. You’re right that many authorities would want that to read “their sentences,” because people weren’t all writing one sentence together. But I follow the guidance about this in a book called “Words Into Type.” It reads, “A singular noun is often used with a plural possessive when only one of the things possessed could belong to each individual.” The examples include “Forbes knew most of them by their first name.” I did think about whether to make “sentence” plural, but I decided the singular did a better job of making clear that there was one sentence per writer.

Patrick Wright, of Redford, Mich., writes: “As a linguist and a mathematician, I fail to understand the objection you made in a recent column to the expression ‘50 times fainter.’”

Dear Patrick: Looking back on that column, I see I didn’t explain myself very well. Here’s the way “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” argues the point: “Do not write ‘times less’ or ‘times smaller’ (or things like ‘times as thin’ or ‘times as short’). A quantity can decrease only one time before disappearing, and then there is nothing left to decrease further. Make it ‘one-third as much’ (or ‘as tall,’ or ‘as fast’).”

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

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