CHARLOTTE, NC: Most of us can remember those tedious days in school when we all struggled with learning the proper times to use “may” or “can”, “who” or “whom” and “I” or “me.” Grammar alluded most of us then and now. English is just plain hard.
In a strange reversal of usage, the “I/me” debate was pounded into us for so long, that today it’s more often common to use the word “I” improperly than it is to misuse “we.”
For example, in the sentence “The puppy licked my brother and (me/I)”, which is the correct choice? For many of us, we were taught that “me” was incorrect for so long, that we now automatically substitute “I” without considering that it might be wrong, which it is.
Me or I did what when?
The problem is when you ask someone who went to school when cavemen were still drawing on walls, teachers would repeat the rule over and over so often that it became so automatic that “I” simply replaced the automatic “me.”
In today’s world, most people get the “I” wrong more often than they do “me.”
Language teachers and grammarians get so hung up talking about subjects, predicates, modifiers, objective and cases that by the time students have to make a choice about which word to use, they are so confused that they would rather guess than think about how to get it right.
Our lenient language
Because the pace of daily living has become so much quicker these days, usage in everyday conversation and practice has also become more lenient. In most cases, it is acceptable to use either word in day-to-day jargon, regardless of which is proper.
Which brings us to a simple trick that is easy to remember and use when it’s important to make the proper decision. In the sentence “The cat scratched Bill and (I or me)” simply remove the other person in the sentence and re-read it to see which sounds right.
Does “The cat scratched I” sound correct, or does “The cat scratched me” work better? The second option is the proper choice, which means the correct sentence would “The cat scratched Bill and me.”
How about “Kathy and (I or me) are going to church.”
Using the same trick, which would you say, “I am going to church” or “Me am going to church.”?
In this situation, without cluttering your brain with direct objects and which case to choose, “I am going to church” is correct meaning that “Kathy and I are going to church” is the proper selection.
Who, I mean whom, or who
Perhaps more difficult is deciding when to use “who” or “whom.” In just about every case, most of us will use “who” in any situation these days because it sounds “normal” compared to the more formal sounding “whom.”
In the question, “You invited (who or whom) to go on the trip with you?”, almost all of us would use “who” without a second thought, even though “whom” is appropriate.
Though “whom” is correct, to most of us, it seems phony or pretentious, while “who” sounds softer and less affected.
If you’re ever in a situation where it is important to get it right however, how do you know for sure which is correct? As with “I/me”, there’s an easy and similar trick.
Simply swap out the “who” or “whom” in the sentence with “he” or “him.” If “he” sounds right, use “who.” If “him” seems the better, go with “whom.”
In the above question, “You invited “him” to go on the trip with you?” sounds infinitely better than, “You invited “he” to go on the trip with you?”, thereby making “whom” the correct choice.
Keep the conversation going
Obviously, stopping a good conversation to mentally make the conversion would be both time consuming and foolish, but in certain business situations this little shortcut could save hours of trying to determine the proper word to use and, depending upon a given situation could potentially even make or break a deal.
Note that you can substitute other pronoun combinations such as “they” and “them” or “she” and “her” rather than “he” and “him” if you prefer.
May I? Will can I?
“Can” and “may” is a different situation entirely, but considerably less complicated than its two siblings. Suffice it to say that a rousing French dance just wouldn’t work if it was called the “May-May.”
But then again, (who/whom) ever danced around a “Canpole”? Not (I/me).
So the question becomes “How (can/may) I be of assistance when asking the police to help you and (I/me) in our quest to learn (who/whom) let the dogs out? Huuunh, huuunh.”
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is a founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
Read more of Bob’s journeys with ALS and his travels around the world
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