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December 4th, 2008

Gentleman criminals / I and me

by Barbara Wallraff

Karen Fielder, of Brewer, Maine, writes: “Police officers and crime victims often refer to the culprit as a ‘gentleman.’ On today’s news broadcast a brokenhearted mother said, ‘The police have arrested this gentleman for my daughter’s brutal death.’ Her words did not seem sarcastic. It is politically correct to avoid using ‘monster,’ ‘murderer’ or ‘thief’ to refer to a person not yet convicted of a crime, but it pains me to hear victims use such a kind word when so many others are available -- ‘man,’ ‘person,’ ‘individual.’”

Dear Karen: You’re not alone. I too wince when “gentleman” refers to a man who has done, or is alleged to have done, something as far from gentlemanly as committing a major felony.

“Gentleman” once was a synonym for “nobleman.” By the time the American colonies separated from England and chose to do without noblemen, the word also could be just a courteous or complimentary synonym for “man.” Of course, people sometimes use courtesy and compliments ironically. (For instance, “What a prince!” usually means “That was really cheap of him!”) But the bereft mother you quote can’t have intended “gentleman” in either of these ways. She may have taken her cue from the police, who do sometimes refer to criminal suspects as “gentlemen.” I don’t know whether officers who do that are being ironic or carefully respectful of people who, after all, are only suspected of crimes. I am glad, though, that they’re not reflexively hurling epithets.

Mark Paveglio, of Bay City, Mich., writes: “Thank you for your recent discussion of ‘I’ and ‘me.’ Please go one further and address the use of ‘I’ when coupled with another subject or object. I am overwhelmed (and I work in a high school) with constructions such as ‘If you have questions, contact Joan or I.’ This from an English teacher! Recently in a school newsletter: ‘Donations can be made to Sam or I.’ I can’t figure how to approach the topic with others in a non-affected manner. Please, a simple explanation that I can copy and anonymously place on our teachers’ lounge bulletin board!”

Dear Mark: I don’t know how you’ll manage to remain anonymous now, but I’ll gladly provide the explanation. As far as I know, no one is ever tempted to say, “If you have questions, contact I” or “Donations can be made to I.” We all know perfectly well that in both of these sentences the right word is “me.” Our instincts about “me” and other pronouns are usually good when we’re talking about only one person. Bringing a second person into it doesn’t change the grammar. So if you’d say “contact me” when talking about yourself alone, then say “contact Joan or me.” If you’d say “Donations can be made to me,” then make it “to Sam or me.”

As for how to approach the topic, Mark, I suggest you do your best to avoid it. The only reason I get away with correcting people’s grammar is that they ask me to. Unless they do, I don’t.

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

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