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.
* * *
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.
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.