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Take My Word!

A Subjective View of English Grammar

September 09, 1987|THOMAS H. MIDDLETON

From one of my thoroughly unkempt desk drawers, I just pulled a scrap of paper on which I had scrawled, "Regan: 'I told him what Meese had told the President and me (!) that afternoon.' "

That parenthesized exclamation point is part of the scrawl, and it strikes me as a significant comment on the current state of the English language in the United States. It is a mark of astonishment, and it is also a mark, used principally in the notation of chess games, meaning, "Good move!" (For a bonehead move, they use a question mark.)

The implication is that what we have come to expect, not only from athletic stars and ordinary mortals, but from politicians, government officials, television and film personalities, and even, God help us, sometimes from schoolteachers, is rotten English. That Donald Regan, former White House Chief of Staff, didn't say, "I told him what (Atty. Gen. Edwin) Meese (III) had told the President and I that afternoon" so startled and refreshed me that I grabbed pencil and paper and made a note of it.

Several years ago, I theorized that the too-common eschewal of me and the preference for I was the outgrowth of actor Johnny Weissmuller's immortal line, "Me Tarzan, you Jane," in 1932's "Tarzan the Ape Man." Implicit in that phrase from the film is that me is somehow more primitive and less civilized than I.

I was kidding, of course, but I think the truth of the matter is quite close to the Tarzan explanation. Probably most of us at some point in our childhood said something like, "Me and Susan are building a tree hut," and one of our parents, or a teacher, or some other meddlesome grown-up corrected us with, "Susan and I are building a tree hut."

The grown-up doubtless sensed that we were too young to understand about subjective and objective cases and their whys and wherefores, and so he or she left it at that. The lesson, conscious or not, that we came away with was almost certainly that I was superior to, or at least more correct than, me.

This misuse of I always follows and. There is always a plurality involved. It's hard to imagine anyone saying, "They asked I to come for dinner," but we are, I'm afraid, more apt to hear, "They asked Bert and I" than "They asked Bert and me."

Grammar as an object of study seems to be deader than Latin, and that's a pity. It would be easier to explain to one who has some knowledge of the rules of grammar why it's ungrammatical to say, "what Meese told the President and I" than to explain it to someone who grapples catch-as-catch-can with the language.

It took me some minutes to work out the structure of Regan's sentence. I thought, at first, that me is the object of the verb told. Then I realized that me is the indirect object, while what is the direct object.

I also realized that the sentence is exquisitely complex, and, beyond that, I think I realized why a lot of teachers decided that teaching grammar is a waste of time. I don't agree, but I can't entirely blame them.

Analysis of Regan's seemingly simple statement can make you a bit queasy. The subject of the sentence is I ; the rest of the sentence is the complete predicate. The first told is the kernel verb of the predicate. The direct object of told is what Meese had told the President and me, and the indirect object is him.

Him is the indirect object because "I told" "what Meese had told" to him. That to is not stated, but is implicit. What Meese had told the President and me that afternoon is a dependent clause. It has a subject and a predicate, but it cannot stand by itself as a sentence, so it is dependent upon the main body of the sentence, which, reduced to its barest bones is I told. Finally, the President and me is the indirect object of "what Meese had told."

To my mind, working out these grammatical structures not only yields an enhanced understanding of the language, it also gives one's reasoning powers a strenuous workout. Dropping this kind of exercise from the curriculum might have made life easier for teachers and students, but the educational system has lost something valuable.

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