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March 5th, 2008

How correct is too correct? / more on I and me

by Barbara Wallraff

Amy Krauss Roy, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., writes: “How do you handle it when you’re faced with the choice of either sounding correct or actually using correct grammar or pronunciation and sounding ignorant or affected? For instance, do you correctly pronounce the ‘teeya’ at the end of ‘poinsettia’ instead of the common ‘ta’? What about correctly using ‘me’ instead of ‘I’ in the case of ‘... gave books to Katie and me’? Listen to the radio or sit in a meeting at work and it’s clear that most people have no idea that ‘I’ isn’t always correct. I don’t like the thought of others cringing when they hear me say something they think is incorrect but that I know to be proper usage or pronunciation.”

Dear Amy: If everybody else jumped off a cliff ... In language as in everything else, we have to make our own decisions. So I pronounce “poinsettia” with all four syllables and say “me” where it’s grammatically correct. If people who do otherwise notice, maybe they’ll wonder whether I know something they don’t.

Then again, I try not to go overboard with grammatical correctness. I say, “Who can you trust?” and “Woe is me,” not “Whom can you trust?” and “Woe is I.” The ungrammatical versions sound natural -- not just to me but to nearly everyone, including language mavens -- and the grammatically correct ones sound stuck-up and phony.
If I want to do a reality check -- if I want to make sure that “I” didn’t replace “me” when I wasn’t paying attention or that the “i” near the end of “poinsettia” isn’t supposed to be silent, like the one in “waive” -- I use trusted reference books. Among my favorites are “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” by Bryan A. Garner; the wonderful if aging “Modern English Usage,” by H.W. Fowler; and the American Heritage and New Oxford American dictionaries.

Let’s have a look. The usage books agree with you and me about “me.” And the dictionaries give our pronunciation for “poinsettia.” They also give the one we don’t like, though, so we shouldn’t fault people who say “poinsetta” even as we refuse to join them.

Debra Wells, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “I want to comment on your answer to a recent ‘I’ versus ‘me’ question. As I have always understood it: ‘You bump heads with me’ -- yes. However, it would be ‘You bump heads with someone as big and tough as I (am),’ the word in parentheses being understood.”

Dear Debra: That’s a perfectly good way to look at it, but it’s not the only one. I was taking my cue from my beloved H.W. Fowler’s “Modern English Usage.” It gives as correct examples “Never was so active a man as he” and “I never knew so active a man as him,” and says the difference arises because the man is the subject of the first sentence and the object of the second. Fowler argues, “To ban this construction and insist on writing ‘he’ always ... seems pedantic, though ‘he’ is always admissible.” I figure if Fowler -- the grammarians’ grammarian, writing in the 1920s -- considers something pedantic and therefore undesirable, it is.

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

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