When it’s Right to be Wrong

by Dr. Marlene Caroselli Mar 14, 2018, 0 Comments

The definition of grace, as ascribed to Jacqueline Kennedy, is making others feel comfortable.

We don’t typically associate “grace” and “grammar,” but there are those occasions when it’s perfectly acceptable to be grammatically incorrect. To do otherwise may make you appear elitist.

This article looks at correct usage of pronouns and prepositions, followed by a quick glance at those instances when, grammatically speaking, it’s right to be wrong.

First, the Simple Rule for the Correct use of Pronouns

You’ll find the Editing Tool at ProWritingAid invaluable for advising you about the correct usage of pronouns. But, there will be times when you can’t access the tool. Or times when you are in conversation and need to decide, quickly, the correct usage.

The choice is made simple if you are able to recognize the various forms of the infinite verb “to be.” Try repeating as fast as you can these “weak," intransitive verbs: am, is, are, was, were. Once you have them committed to memory, you’ll be able to identify them right away. When they stand alone in a sentence, you must use the subject case pronouns.

The other forms of the “to be” verb are easy to spot because they have some form of “be” in them: have been, could be, had been, and so on.

Subject case pronouns:

The pronouns I, he, she, we, they must be used if the verb that governs their usage is a weak verb. Again, the weak verbs are any form of the verb "to be." Most of those have the word "be" or "been" in the verb. But five forms must be memorized because the verb is an irregular one. Those five are am, is, are, was, were.

Object case pronouns:

The pronouns me, him, her, us, them must be used whenever a preposition governs their usage. These are the most common prepositions:

  • about
  • above
  • across
  • after
  • against
  • along
  • amid
  • among
  • around
  • at
  • before
  • behind
  • below
  • beneath
  • beside
  • between
  • beyond
  • but
  • by
  • concerning
  • down
  • during
  • except
  • for
  • from
  • in
  • into
  • like
  • of
  • off
  • on
  • over
  • past
  • since
  • through
  • throughout
  • to
  • toward
  • under
  • until
  • unto
  • up
  • upon
  • with
  • within
  • without

If you know your prepositions, you’ll be able to see or hear them immediately. They usually precede your pronoun choice. When you find a preposition, you should select the object case pronoun you need.

Exercises

The following sentences may or may not contain errors. If you feel corrections are needed, indicate where pronouns should be changed. Check your answers at the bottom of this post.

  1. I can’t say with certainty, but the former committee head may have been her.

  2. Between you and I, word has it that Nancy is resigning.

  3. I predict the next general manager will be she.

  4. We’d be behind schedule without Lundy and he.

  5. It will no doubt be them who complain about the pay raises.

  6. The one who raised all that money was him.

  7. Mr. Brizend distributed the reports to we engineers.

  8. In the past, the culprits have been them.

  9. The boss sent out a memo about you and I and the volunteer work we’ve done.

  10. For Secretary’s Day, Mr. Allison prepared a special event for Tami, Yolanda, and she.

The Acceptable Violation of Pronoun Rules

My mother made it to the 8th grade and then dropped out of school to help support a large family that lost their father when he was only 42. She may have learned the rules for pronoun usage, but her life demanded attention to far more important issues.

Once, she and I were watching an old movie and she spotted a familiar face on the television screen. “Isn’t that Jimmy Stewart?” she asked.

I could have responded in English-teacher fashion and replied, “Yes, Mom, that’s he.” But English-teacher fashion has the power to make others feel unschooled and uncomfortable. I replied instead, “You’re right. That’s him.”

Only you will be able to decide when it’s right to be grammatically wrong. You can, of course, speak and write (emails, especially) that are perfect. But there are times when each of us may opt to ignore the rules of grammar and abide, instead, by the rules of gracious behavior.

A Final Word About Pronouns, Propriety, Politeness, and Preferences

As language-lovers, we also have an obligation to the “rules” that go beyond linguistic propriety. There are other rules, perhaps not written, that pertain. Whether you are giving maximum information or minimum information, be guided by another Jackie aphorism: “I want minimum information,” she once asserted, “given with maximum politeness.”

How well did you do?

Here are the answers:

  1. she, not her
  2. me, not I
  3. Correct.
  4. him, not he.
  5. they, not them
  6. he, not him
  7. us, not we
  8. they, not them
  9. me, not I
  10. her, not she

If you did not have a perfect score, go back to each sentence in the quiz and find either the weak verb or the preposition that governs the choice of the subject-case pronoun or the object-case pronoun.

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About the Author:

Dr. Marlene Caroselli is an author, keynoter, and corporate trainer whose clients include Lockheed Martin, Allied Signal, Department of the Interior, and Navy SEALS. She writes extensively about education, business, self-improvement, and careers and has adjuncted at UCLA and National University. Her first book, The Language of Leadership, was named a main selection by the Executive Book Club. Principled Persuasion, a more recent title, was designated a Director's Choice by the Doubleday Book Club. Applying Mr. Albert: 365+ Einstein-Inspired Brain Boosts, her 62nd book, will be released by HRD Press in 2018. You can contact her at msmccpd@gmail.com

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