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November 19th, 2008

Heart-rendering? / myself abuse

by Barbara Wallraff

Bunny Carlson, of Clinton Township, Mich., writes: “During the past several weeks, we have heard radio commercials announcing the new production of ‘Madame Butterfly’ at the Detroit Opera House. These commercials assure us that we will enjoy this ‘heart-rendering’ story, beautifully sung by talented singers. My dictionary defines ‘rendering’ as ‘a performance of a piece of music or drama.’ As for ‘render,’ among the other uses is ‘melt down (fat): the fat was being cut up and rendered for lard.’ I think the word of choice in the commercial would be ‘heart-rending.’ Do I need a new dictionary, or does the Michigan Opera Theatre and its staff need one?”

Dear Bunny: Right you are: The term the opera company needs is “heart-rending.” “Render” has several meanings, including “provide,” “cause to be” and “represent artistically,” as well as the groady one you mention, having to do with fat. But none of them is particularly appropriate to do to a heart. To “rend” is to wrench or tear. “Heart-rending” is “heart-wrenching” -- a perfect description of the sad but musically gorgeous story of “Madame Butterfly.”

Judy Zeichner, of Moraga, Calif., writes: “How do you view the increasingly common use of the reflexive ‘myself’ in place of a more appropriate (and grammatically correct) pronoun form? In addition to seeing examples of misuse in other media, I’ve received e-mails asking if I could forward a message to ‘Tom and myself’ or informing me that ‘Sheila and myself have registered for the new class.’ What’s going on with this?”

Dear Judy: For some reason, lots of people have been asking me about this lately, and also about misuses of “I.” What’s going on is widespread confusion about when to use “I” and “me.” People who are unsure which is right sometimes try to fudge it by using “myself.”

Linguists may tell you a different story, which has to do with our neat and consistent “intuitive grammar.” But if our first intuitions were always correct, we’d say, for example, “beed” instead of “am,” “was” and “were”; the English we used would be “speaked” and “writed” instead of “spoken” and “written”; and we’d have “tooths” and “foots” instead of “teeth” and “feet.”

Of course, the correct versions of those are all irregular forms. We were trained out of them as children, and we learned the lesson so well that the versions that follow the basic, regular rules sound ridiculous. The incorrect use of “I,” “me” and “myself” sounds almost as bad to some of us, and the rule for distinguishing among the three isn’t complicated. The only thing that’s tricky is that we can’t just memorize one form -- we have to continue making choices on the fly.

“I” is the subject of sentences (for instance, “I am doing my best to explain”). “Me” is for objects (“You asked me”), including objects of prepositions (“You talking to me?” and “between you and me”). But when the subject is “I” and the speaker is also the object, then the word “me” switches to “myself” (“Am I just talking to myself?”). How hard is that?

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

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