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February 27th, 2008

As big and tough as me or I? / artisan and artisanal

by Barbara Wallraff

Robert Lytle, of Lake Orion, Mich., writes: “I’m writing a story for young adults about bullying. In one scene, the bully tells the bullied, ‘You bump heads with someone as big and tough as me and you’re going to end up shorter and squatter than you already are.’ To which the other boy, getting to his feet, says: ‘“As I.” To be correct, you should have said, “... as big and tough as I.”’ I’ve run this past several people, who think the bully is right. Which is it?”

Dear Robert: I love your idea of having the kid show how plucky he is by correcting the bully’s grammar -- but not with that sentence. A phrase like “someone as big and tough as ...” might end with either “me” or “I,” depending on its role grammatically: Is it a subject or an object? Try mentally replacing the whole phrase with “me” or “I” alone, and that should tell you which word is right. You’d say, “you bump heads with me,” no? Therefore you should also say, “you bump heads with someone as big and tough as me.” Then again, if the bully suddenly had a change of heart and was good with grammar, he might say, “Someone as big and tough as I shouldn’t be picking on a little guy like you.” At least, that’s according to most traditionalists. There are language commentators who argue in favor of using “as me” no matter what -- mainly because they think “as I” sounds pretentious.

So, you could have the bully say “as big and tough as I” and have his victim correct him with “As me.” But I wouldn’t recommend it, and here’s why: People who want to sound educated but don’t know the rules for using “me” and “I” tend to use “I” for everything. No doubt you want your bully to seem ignorant -- bullies usually are. Therefore, he shouldn’t know the rules about “me” and “I.” But I doubt he’d be interested in sounding educated (let alone pretentious!) -- so he probably wouldn’t misuse “I.” Why not have him, instead, use a double negative, like “You don’t know nothing or you wouldn’t be messing with me”? That’s definitely, unmistakably ignorant.

Tamara Kayfetz-Kingston, of Inverary, Ontario, writes: “Please advise the correct usage: Can you use the word ‘artisan’ as an adjective -- as in ‘artisan cheese’ -- or is it ‘artisanal cheese’? I have seen both but am not sure if both are correct.”

Dear Tamara: Neither word is actually wrong. Nouns are often used as adjectives. Think of “goat” in “goat cheese,” for instance, and “peanut” in “peanut butter.” “Artisanal” does exist as an adjective -- but the people who use it always sound to me as if they’re trying too hard. Saying “artisanal” instead of “artisan” isn’t as bad as saying “I” instead of “me” -- but it’s headed in that direction. It’s genteel, in the bad sense. May I encourage you to avoid it in your own writing and speech?

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

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