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A Word, Please: To ‘me’ or not to ‘me’: That is today’s question

Betsy in Albany had a great question about “I” versus “me.” Consider the sentence: “John’s hidden agenda was to make George and I say nice things about him.”

Should that “I” be “me”?

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I talk a lot here about choosing between subject pronouns like “I” and object pronouns like “me.” If you’ve been paying attention, you know the answer has a lot to do with whether the pronoun is the subject of a verb. The litmus test is usually just: Look for a nearby verb and ask if it’s missing a subject. If so, you probably need “I.” Conversely, if there’s a verb or preposition nearby that seems to need an object, you probably want “me.”

I see now that I’ve let you down. If you look at “say” in “make George and I say nice things,” you could easily conclude that it needs a subject like “I.” After all, it’s “I say,” not “me say.”

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That would be wrong. The correct pronoun in this sentence is “me.” The reasons are sufficiently complicated that I hesitate to bore you with them. But here we go anyway.

In our sentence, the compound “George and me” is an object. Specifically, it’s the object of the verb “make.” You make George and me. You don’t make George and I.

When we put “say” back in, it appears to be a conjugated verb in need of a subject: I say, you say, we say. But it’s not. It’s actually an infinitive clause that’s working as a modifier — essentially, an adjective. It’s modifying “George and me.”

Because the “George and me” part functions in the sentence as the object of the verb “to make,” you need the pronouns to be in object form. “I” is a subject. “Me” is an object. So “me” belongs in this sentence.

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If you drop the other person in the sentence then try both pronouns, the answer is clear. John’s agenda was to make I say nice things? Or John’s agenda was to make me say nice things? Clearly, it’s me.

Another interesting email I got recently came from Paul in Cohoes, N.Y.

“I have noticed recently an increased misuse of the plural noun ‘data.’ It is very often used as a singular noun. Is this a new usage that is becoming accepted?” The example Paul gave compares “inconvenient data undermines the claim” with “inconvenient data undermine the claim.”

Paul is right that “data” is traditionally plural. It’s Latin, meaning more than one datum. But as we know all too well, language evolves. The results can be messy.

Just as “politics” and “economics” can sometimes be used as plurals and other times used as singulars, “data” is accepted as a singular as well as a plural. Merriam-Webster’s specifically notes that “data” is “plural in form, but singular or plural in construction.” So you can use it either way. But just between you, me and Paul: Readers who pay attention to such things usually prefer using “data” only as a plural. The safer bet, then, is “data are,” not “data is,” and “data undermine,” not “data undermines.”

Also in this month’s mailbag: Cynthia in Burbank has noticed a lot of unnecessary uses of the word “arguably” — especially in opinion pieces. “It seems to me that its use is superfluous,” Cynthia wrote. “What does it matter if my opinion about X is arguable? Isn't an opinion by its very nature just one point of view and other points of view are to be expected?”

Good point. You can use “arguably” any time you want to make it clear you’re not presenting opinion as fact. But if you’re writing an opinion anyway, I’d argue you can do without it.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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