Is it “Me” or “I”?

To as great an extent as is possible, I try to learn and use sound grammar. I still refer to the classic book on writing by Strunk and White “The Elements of Style.” But in this world of email, text messages and Twitter, does grammar matter as much or at all? In a recent article by Sue Shellenbarger in The Wall Street Journal, she wrote:

When Caren Berg, a senior vice-president at a Florida marketing company, told colleagues at a recent staff meeting, “There’s new people you should meet,” her boss quickly broke in. Mr. Silver, the company’s chief operating officer, said he cringes every time he hears someone misuse “is” for “are.”

He also hammers the company’s interns to stop peppering sentences with “like.” For years, he imposed a 25-per cent fine on new hires for each offence. “I am losing the battle,” Mr. Silver said.

Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace. Many of them attribute slipping skills to the informality of e-mail, texting and Twitter where slang and short-cuts are common. Such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communication errors, many managers say.

I’m shocked at the rampant illiteracy [on Twitter],” said Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and President of LawProse, A Dallas training and consulting firm.

He has compiled a list of 30 examples of “uneducated English,” such as saying “I could care less,” instead of “I couldn’t care less,” or, “He expected Helen and I to help him,” instead of “Helen and me.”

In a survey earlier this year, about 45 per cent of 430 employers said they were increasing employee-training programs to improve employees’ grammar and other skills according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP.

Most participants in the survey blame younger workers for the skills gap. Tamara Erickson, an author and consultant on generational issues, said that twenty- and thirtysome-things were accustomed to texting and social networking and have develop a new norm.

At RescueTine, for example, grammar rules have never come up. At the Seattle-based maker of personal-productivity software, most employees are in their 30s. Sincerity and clarity expressed in “140 characters and sound bytes” are seen as hallmarks of good communication — not “the king’s grammar,” said Jason Grimes, 38, vice-president of product marketing. “Those who can be sincere, and still text and Twitter and communicate on Facebook — those are the ones who are going to succeed,” he said.

I do not agree with this sentiment. But the English language is a mongrel and has survived many a change in accepted practices, grammar, spelling and usage. In many ways, English has survived and thrived precisely because it could adapt and subsume words from other languages, not unlike a language virus. But I think there is an important distinction between changes in spelling, punctuation, and words, as well as changes in generally accepted grammar, and a loss of bandwidth and precision.

Precision, in the ability to communicate, clearly and with fine-grained nuance, the elements of a philosophy, argument or set of beliefs; bandwidth, in the ability to convey a complex and interlocking set of ideas in a logical and orderly communication that requires more than 140 characters. While high word count does not denote wisdom, by the same token an idea squeezed into 140 characters is not automatically brilliant and succinct as opposed to mundane and superficial.

Indeed, with the torrent of data available through more and more devices, and the geometric growth of written and visual content, one might argue that in the future power will accrue to those who can most effectively wade through, combine and write about the issues of the day. The same opportunity might also occur in organizations, where the power to lead and inspire comes not only through some form of Jobs-like stage presence, but also the power of the written word.

While it might seem nit-picky to take the time and energy to differentiate between the proper use of “me” and “I,” I would make the assertion that there are a number of things which help sharpen the mind and instill discipline in thought, a trait that performance improvement professionals should embody, for clarity of thinking and discipline of action are at the foundation of self-improvement and process improvement. It is not unlike getting lazy about whether 2 + 2 = 4 or that 2 + 2 = 4-ish, give or take.

For those still in suspense about the proper usage of “I” and “me,” here’s the advice from the Oxford Dictionary, one that I think is especially clear and useful:

The two personal pronouns I and me are often used wrongly, usually in sentences in which I is being used with another noun. Here are some tips to help you get it right:

  • Use the pronoun I, along with other subjective pronouns such as we, he, she, you, and they, when the pronoun is the subject of a verb:
He went to bed.

We waited for the bus.

Clare and I are going for a coffee.

In the last example, the pronoun I, together with the proper noun Clare, forms the subject of the sentence, so you need to use I rather than me.

  • Use the pronoun me, along with other objective pronouns such as us, him, her, you, and them, when the pronoun is the object of a verb:
Danny thanked them.

The dog followed John and me to the door.

 In the last example, the pronoun me, together  with the proper noun John, forms the object  of the verb follow, so you need to use me rather than I

  • Use the pronoun me, along with other objective pronouns  such as us, him, her, you, and them, when the pronoun  is the object  of a preposition:

Rose spent the day with Jake and me.

Me, together with Jake, forms the object of the preposition with, so you need to use the pronoun me rather than the pronoun I.
An easy way of making sure you’ve chosen the right pronoun is to see whether the sentence reads properly if you remove the additional noun:

I am going for   a coffee X Me am going for   a coffee
√ The dog followed me X The dog followed I
√ Rose spent the day with me X Rose spent the day with I