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A Word, Please: 5 times when trying too hard makes your grammar worse instead of better

A yellow rotary phone on an end table.
According to grammar columnist June Casagrande, the use of “whomever” in “I will talk with whomever answers the phone” is not grammatically correct.
(Chelsea Fisher / Getty Images/Flickr)

Do you try to use good grammar? That’s great. Chances are your efforts pay off and you’re a better communicator as a result.

But if you try too hard, your efforts can backfire. Grammar rules are based on common usage — the way people speak naturally. So it’s a paradox of language that the more you overthink your grammar and word choices, the more likely you are to goof up.

Here are five times when trying too hard makes your grammar worse instead of better.

I feel badly. You can say it this way if you want to. “I feel badly” is idiomatic — meaning it’s acceptable simply because it’s so common. But if you’re choosing “badly” over “bad” because you think it’s more grammatical, you’re missing an important fact about adverbs. We’re taught in school that adverbs modify verbs. You skip happily down the street. But there’s a special kind of verb that takes an adjective instead of an adverb as its complement. They’re called “copular verbs” or “linking verbs,” and the most important member of this group is “be.” For example, “Joe is happy” uses a form of “be” — “is” — and is followed by the adjective “happy.” Try the alternative, “Joe is happily,” and you can see that some verbs say less about an action and more about the subject. “Feel” isn’t always copular. But in the sentence “I feel bad,” it is. That’s why it gets the adjective “bad” instead of the adverb “badly.”

The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style lay out lots of basic punctuation rules. But in certain gray areas, they’re useless.

Moving a preposition from the end of a sentence. “That’s something with which I just can’t cope.” “From where are you?” “In what subjects are you interested?” There’s an old grammar myth that insists it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition like “with,” “from” or “in.” That’s why some people think it’s wrong to say, “That’s something I can’t cope with,” “Where are you from?” and “What subjects are you interested in?” Good news: There’s no such rule. If you’d rather say, “Who are you going to the movies with?” than “With whom are you going to the movies?” you’re making a good choice.

Whomever. This is a perfectly fine word except for the fact that people seem to use it wrong as often as they use it right. The mistakes usually look something like this: “I will talk with whomever answers the phone.” The underlying idea is that a preposition like “with” takes an object like “whomever” instead of a subject form like “whoever.” A simpler example using “he” and “him” shows how the preposition works. “Him” is an object pronoun and you speak “with him.” “He” is a subject pronoun, so you don’t speak “with he.” When you say you’ll talk with whomever answers the phone you’re assuming that the object of the preposition “with” is the pronoun that follows it. But sometimes the object of a preposition isn’t a single word but instead a whole clause containing both a subject and a verb. “Whoever answers the phone” is a whole clause and its verb, “answers,” needs a subject like “whoever” and not an object like “whomever.” That whole clause is the object of “with,” so it’s “I’ll speak with whoever answers the phone.”

Thanks for visiting Ted and I. This is another example of idiomatic usage. Use “I” here if you want to. But don’t use it because you think it’s more grammatical. The grammatical choice is “me” because the verb “visiting” needs an object. “Me” is an object. “I” is a subject.” You’d never say, “Thanks for visiting I.” Throwing Ted into the mix changes nothing.

Avoiding “you.” Throughout our school careers, there are times when “you” is too informal to use in your writing. The same is true for business writing, where sometimes “you” just won’t do. But in many situations including news and feature articles and essays, it’s fine to address the reader in the second person. “If you like to travel on a budget” is often much better than “For the traveler who likes to travel on a budget.”

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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