When smart people use bad grammar

I’m sitting at a lounge last week in Los Angeles with a top business reporter. True, we’re drinking, but that doesn’t really explain what happens next. I’m conversing with him about something that doesn’t really concern you, and things get kind of confidential, and I ask for his promise that the matter will remain off the record. “Don’t worry,” says the reporter, a graduate of a fine college and probably a reputable journalism school. “That will just be between you and I.”

See anything wrong there? I do, but I don’t say anything about it. I don’t want to come off as Miss Grundy.

A couple of days before, I’m in a big presentation where an industry leader is addressing about 300 hotshots. Very smart guy. Very sharp speech. Somewhere toward the end of the thing, he leans forward to make a particularly important point. “The future of this technology is obvious,” he says, “although you and me may not be around to see it.” Ouch.

Every day it happens. I try to ignore it. But it gives me a little stab in the back of my eye every time I hear it. Really smart people, people who can explain the impact of tax abatements on earnings per share going forward, who can discern how internet revenues will play out in the coming decade, who can shoot craps or guide investments with aplomb, don’t know the difference between I and me. Does it matter? Should it matter? I don’t know. It just seems to matter to me.

The thing is, you can’t really correct people about it. They hate you. They look at you like you’re some kind of jerk. And maybe you are. After all, with all that’s going on in the world, does grammar matter?

For the record, and for those who even marginally care: this is really easy. The word “I” is used when the You in questions is the subject of a sentence. “I” does things. “I like that,” you say. You don’t say, “Me like that,” unless you are Tarzan. “Me” makes his appearance when things are done to You. “He really screwed me on that deal,” is both a common occurrence and correct usage.

Most of us know this. It’s when we combine with others that the problems start. “You and me are going to kick his butt,” is a laudable strategy, but a grammatical boner. “I” is going to kick his butt. Likewise, “In the future, clearance for lunches over $100 must be obtained from Max or I,” may be excellent policy, but goofy usage. Just looking at it on the page here, doesn’t it LOOK wrong? And yet I hear it every single day, from people who are smart and too powerful, conceited or just plain tender to be corrected.

Even the best newspapers in the nation have given up on the split infinitive. Almost nobody cares about the difference between “presently” and “currently.” A good portion of the population reading this conducts much of its online communications in abbreviations, alphabetized contractions and emoticons.

Can’t we save this one vestige of good speech, you and I? … or is that you and me?

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