It’s a perfectly logical thing to do: You need an answer to a grammar question, so you fire off an email to your friendly neighborhood grammar columnist. After all, you may not have anywhere else to turn.
The dictionary’s a great help sometimes, like when you want to know the past tense of a verb like “lay” or “hang.” But it’s not a one-stop grammar shop. When you need answers that can’t be found in a simple alphabetized list of words, resources are scarce.
Often, people turn to hearsay — the overconfident advice of a grammar-enthusiast friend or relative. That can be a mistake. People who think they know grammar rules off the top of their heads may have instead memorized mythical rules that get passed down from generation to generation.
An oh-so-confident English teacher tells you that it’s wrong to start a sentence with “and.” A seemingly knowledgeable friend tells you “irregardless” isn’t a word. Your own mother tells you it’s a mistake to say, “I’m done” when you finish dinner.
Those are all wrong, I regret to report. Sadly, even Mom can lead you astray. So with this serious shortage of alternatives, it makes perfect sense to reach out to that columnist who’s spent years citing countless grammar resources you’d never heard of.
Most of the time, you’ll get good information. But every once in a while, you’ll get this surprising response: Don’t ask me. Ask your mom.
A recent email from reader Amy is the perfect example. Amy’s boss had written a letter that seemed odd. One sentence in the letter noted that an employee at the company “will have a dual reporting relationship to both me and John."
This wording struck Amy as a potentially bad call. “Is that correct grammar? I was told that you always put the other person first.”
Me, too. And I do. But not for any reason having to do with grammar. English has no rules on the order of pronouns. In a prepositional phrase such as “to me and John,” there’s simply no grammar rule saying that “me and John” should be “John and me.”
Even as the subject of a sentence, the rules of grammar don’t tell you which order to put coordinate pronouns in: “John and I will supervise” is syntactically identical to “I and John will supervise.” They’re equally grammatical.
So why does “I and John” sound so very bad? And why does “to me and John” sound inferior to “John and me”?
The answer brings us back to Mom. The idea that you put the other person first may not be a grammar rule. But it’s a pretty well-established etiquette rule. It’s a courtesy so common that straying from it can strike the ear in a most unpleasant way.
So if your mom or another well-meaning parental figure told you to put the other person first, in speech or in life, that was simply a lesson in good manners.
If you noticed another problem with the letter written by Amy’s boss, you’re not alone: to “have a dual reporting relationship” is pretty bad no matter what pronouns follow. This doesn’t break a grammar rule, either.
But grammar can give us a bit of insight into why it’s bad. When you turn an action like “to report” into an abstraction like the gerund “reporting,” it’s called a nominalization. Often, though not always, nominalizations are bad because actions are better than vague, abstract concepts.
In this case: “will have a dual-reporting relationship” is just a lame and unclear way to say, “will report to.” “Jane will report to John and me” is simple, has a clear action and leaves no one wondering why you couldn’t just speak in plain English in the first place.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.