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Jane Ahlin, Published September 15 2012

Ahlin: OK, class, pay attention! Time for grammar lesson

Half dozing and half listening to the radio recently, I heard an exchange between National Public Radio host Guy Raz and author Brad Meltzer concerning a contest called “Three-Minute Fiction.” The point of their exchange was to invite listeners to submit 600-word stories on the subject of any U.S. president, real or fictitious. The winner – to be chosen by Meltzer – will have his or her piece published in the December issue of The Paris Review. Along with that honor, the winner will be a guest on an NPR program. Or, as Raz so unfortunately put it, “(T)he winner will … also join Brad and I on the program.”

Sigh. When an NPR host says that someone is going to “join I,” it’s time to talk grammar.

As a national journalist, Raz must know the difference between subjective and objective case forms for pronouns, whether the pronoun is or is not part of compound structure in a sentence. Why, if his seventh-grade English teacher happened to be listening to his exchange with Meltzer, she likely either put together 10 new worksheets differentiating subjective and objective case forms for her current students, or – particularly if she’s retired – headed straight to the wine bottle.

Yes, yes, everybody misspeaks at one time or another. Yet, I cannot think of anyone who would say, “Please join I,” or, “He took I to the ballgame,” or, “She did that for I.” In each of those sentences, the use of “I” sounds both ignorant and downright silly. The pronoun, which not only sounds right, but also is right, is “me.” In other words, for the vast majority of people, putting the pronoun in the objective case when it stands alone is no problem.

That begs a question: Why are people comfortable hearing, or worse, saying such things as, “He took George and I to the ballgame”? If the sentence, “He took me,” is correct, then so is, “He took George and me.” How about, “She did that for Patty and I”? Again, if the sentence, “She did that for me,” is correct, then so is, “She did that for Patty and me.”

Consider this sentence, which sounds trickier than it is: “Guy Raz interviewed two people, Brad Meltzer and. ...” Stop to think. Because the word “people” is the object of the verb “interviewed,” the words or phrases used to rename “two people” also are objects of the verb. In other words, the pronoun must be “me” (or ‘him” or “her”). “Guy Raz interviewed two people, Brad Meltzer and me.”

Just for fun, let’s turn the sentence around: “Only two people, Brad Meltzer and …, were interviewed by Guy Raz.” Here, the word “people” is the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the pronoun is in the subjective case. “Only two people, Brad Meltzer and I, were interviewed by Guy Raz.”

This isn’t tough stuff. All it requires is the desire to speak correctly and the willingness to activate a few brain cells in that pursuit.

Moving on.

Every bit as glaring as the grammar faux pas of confusing subjective and objective case forms, use of the word “less” in place of “fewer” is a national scourge. The simple rule is that anything that can be counted is termed “fewer”; if the entity is measured in volume or amount, the term is “less.”

For example, there is less sand but there are fewer grains of sand, less time but fewer minutes, less sugar but fewer sugar cubes; less morality but fewer principles. Not correct ever, ever, ever is saying that there are less doctors or less options. (Talk about stabbing your old English teacher in the heart.) For that matter, Realtors do not list “less” houses or have “less” sales, they list “fewer” houses and have “fewer” sales.

Here’s another example: As lovers of the English language, some of us are finding ourselves with less patience – much, much less patience.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.