A word, please
Internet message boards are cauldrons of casual speech. They’re often riddled with typos and grammatical errors: the one-word “alot,” countless plurals formed with apostrophes as in “cappuccino’s” and “luau’s,” the examples go on. (For the record, those should be “a lot,” “cappuccinos” and “luaus.”)
Normally, no one mentions these errors – even the message board users who obviously know better. So for a mistake to stand out in this sea of anonymous fast-typing and casual slip-ups, it has to be pretty bad. This one was: A user on a travel message board wrote that she was looking forward to “my husband and I’s first trip.”
Bad as that is, I wouldn’t be mentioning it had I not noticed the user name of the person who posted it: EnglishTeacher702.
Now that’s bad.
Of course, we can’t know if she actually was an English teacher. But based on my years of talking to people about grammar, it seems likely.
The English majors, English teachers and former English teachers who write to me often know a lot about Shakespeare and Austen and Chaucer. But most know very little about grammar, which usually is taught in linguistics departments, not English departments
So when you combine the false confidence that comes from the title “English major” or “English teacher” with an utter lack of grammar training, it can lead to brazen errors like “my husband and I’s first trip” where a more timid user might go for “my husband’s and my first trip” or “my husband and my first trip.”
If those “timid” choices sound better, it’s because they are better. “I” is a subject pronoun. “I made lasagna.” It can never be used as a possessor (more properly: a possessive determiner), as in “Bob loves I’s lasagna.”
So we can say with confidence that Englishteacher702’s choice was wrong. But what’s right? Well, that’s not as easy to answer.
The major style guides contain only limited discussion on what they call “joint possessives” or “shared possessives.” According to the Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, Words Into Type and Garner’s Modern American Usage, when two or more people possess something jointly, only the last one gets a possessive marker – that is, an apostrophe and an S.
John and Mary’s house. Pete and Sue’s vacation. Mom and Dad’s marriage.
But when the nouns possess things separately, each gets its own apostrophe and S. John’s and Mary’s shoes. Pete’s and Sue’s jobs. Mom’s and Dad’s opinions.
Great stuff, right? Clear, simple, easy. But there’s a problem. The style authorities don’t tell you what to do when one of those names is swapped out for a pronoun form like my, his or your. Is it “John and my house”? Or “John’s and my house”? They’re not saying.
Usually, when a style guide fails to address a specific structure, you can assume that the broader rule applies. So you might guess that when you take “Mary’s” out of “John and Mary’s house” and replace it with the possessive “my,” you would leave John alone: “John and my house.”
That, according to a strict reading of the rules, might be correct. But I’m not buying it. Even when possession is shared, “John’s and my house” sounds better to me than “John and my house.”
I was curious whether it was just me. So I surveyed four editor friends. I made them choose between “This is my husband and my vacation” and “This is my husband’s and my vacation.” All four preferred “my husband’s and my.” And that’s my (not I’s) preference, too.
June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.”
A word please
Dear June: It bothers me when people use such-and-such word in such-and-such way.
Dear Bothered: Actually, if you look in the dictionary, you’ll see that this usage is fine.
A lot of my correspondence with readers goes pretty much exactly like this. It doesn’t matter if they’re annoyed with people using “who” instead of “whom” or splitting infinitives or using “literally” to mean “not literally.” The bottom line, I explain, is that there’s no basis for perhaps 95 out of 100 common peeves. They’re fine. Copacetic. Nothing to get annoyed about.
I say this so much, in fact, that you might think that nothing anyone says or writes could ever peeve me.
But just between you and me, some things do. I just don’t talk about them much – mainly because my peeves aren’t always supported by logic or fact. In many cases, I am in the wrong. I know it. But some language issues rub me the wrong way in spite of my own better judgment.
Here are a few.
“Between you and I.” Some linguists defend this structure as an established idiom. Like “aren’t I,” people use it not because it follows the strict rules of grammar but simply because they prefer it, some say.
The problem with this argument is that I don’t believe it. Most people I hear using “between you and I” seem to do so not because they prefer it to “between you and me” but because they believe the “me” form is wrong. It’s not. The word “between” is a preposition. Prepositions take objects, which are supposed to be in the objective case.
“Me” is in the objective case. “I” isn’t. So, grammatically speaking, “between you and me” is the way to go.
“There’s” before a plural. It’s very common for people to say things like “There’s just so many different recipes I want to try” and “There’s a lot of great movies out right now” and even “There’s no joggers out tonight.” I don’t like it. “There’s” is a contraction of “there” and “is.” Grammatically, it should precede a singular noun. “There’s a jogger.” But in the examples above, it’s introducing plurals: recipes, movies, joggers. You wouldn’t be as likely to say, “there’s recipes” or “there’s movies” or “there’s joggers.” That, to me, is why the longer versions of these sentences are bad, too.
Yes, extra words between “there’s” and the plural noun act as a buffer. But that doesn’t make this construction any more logical. And even though quite a few experts say “there’s” is fine before a plural in casual usage, I say that “there are” is better.
Periods and commas after quotation marks. I write about this a lot. The result is a humbling testament to my influence: About 99 percent of the emails I receive with a word in quotation marks puts the comma or period after the closing quote mark like this: My boss can’t spell “embarrass”.
That’s correct in British English and it appears to be the way the winds are blowing for American English, too. In another couple decades it may be right. But for now, according to every American punctuation reference I know, periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks, even though question marks and exclamation points may not. (They have different rules.)
A pronounced T in “often.” OK, here I don’t have a leg to stand on. Dictionaries allow the hard T pronunciation: off-ten. But they almost all prefer the silent T.
Had I understood more about dictionaries earlier in life, I might not have developed this pointless peeve. But because I was once taught that “off-en” is right and “off-ten” is wrong, I can’t help but cringe a little when I hear that T.
Here’s hoping that someday I can find something better to get annoyed about.