• November 21, 2014

My Boss Is Ungrammatical

Should I correct my supervisor’s bad speech habits or just keep cringing?

Careers Grammar

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

Question: For years I’ve quietly endured the poor grammar of our department chair. In meetings and emails, Professor Chair consistently uses "I" where "me" would be correct, as in "Please send the material to Ashley and I." I’ve resisted correcting him (as have others)—part diplomacy, part cowardice. But it does make me a little bit crazy. Should I just accept that this is the new trend (I hear people make this same mistake all the time), or is there a constructive way to make a correction?

Answer: Ms. Mentor feels your pain. Her senses, like yours, are daily assaulted by verbal infelicities and ungrammatical excretions. Sometimes she thinks the world is conspiring to make her head hurt.

She will pass over fuming about the usual suspects, among them "irregardless," "perfectly unique," and "close proximity." Grammarians and pedants may explain in the comments, if they wish, what is wrong with those locutions. She just wants them to expire permanently, along with "free gift" and "live pets."

The issue, she believes, is not the barbarism of the current age. Every age has suffered from those who refuse to conform to standard English, civilized usage, or proper Latin. In the past, such characters were indeed called "barbarians," from the belief that they were actually saying "bar bar bar bar bar," instead of sounding like human beings.

Now the barbarians disguise themselves more cleverly. Sometimes they cloak their grammatical or syntactical sins in a robe of local color, pretending to be "folks" blending in with the natives—who really do not, wherever they are, use "y’all" as singular. It is plural, as are "you’uns" and "youse guys," both of which make Ms. Mentor shudder.

She also loathes the misuse of "literally" to mean "figuratively," as in "It literally killed me to see the Math Building being refitted with new water fountains."

Ms. Mentor cringes at those who use "disinterested" (impartial) when they mean "uninterested" (bored). She is more forgiving when students confuse "lie" (to recline or rest) with "lay" (to put or place), simply because many teachers of young people lack the fortitude to put "lay" on the board and endure youthful snickers.

Being an antique herself, Ms. Mentor prefers the old forms. Media, data, and phenomena are all plurals, and anyone who writes "The media is to blame" should be excoriated. Or perhaps sentenced to explain the difference between "flammable" and "inflammable" to the uninterested student who complained about "The professor which gave me a C when I new I deserved a A." (Such students hang out on RateMyProfessors.com.)

Ms. Mentor hates to admit it, but bad grammar is rarely punished. Search committees in academe have been known to screen out applicants whose letters contain misspellings (and "whose"—versus "who’s"—is one good screener). Ms. Mentor hopes they screen out egregious mistakes, such as confusing "less" and "fewer." It pains her deeply that the football coach of the school nearest her ivory tower is named Les Miles. His name should be Fewer Miles.

Bad pronunciation, too, can become the norm. As an infant, young Ms. Mentor overheard adults fume every time they heard President Dwight D. Eisenhower say "nucular power." When Ike left office, they thought they were free of that abominable pronunciation until, lo and behold, President George W. Bush turned up decades later, talking about "nucular weapons." Ms. Mentor, now an adult, has taken to fuming over that, too.

She has been so busy fuming that she has neglected her correspondent, who still wants to know what to do about Professor Chair’s grammar woes. Ms. Mentor’s experts suggest:

  • Model correct English, with the hope that the listener will absorb the correct form, the way toddlers do. One might gently say, "When will you send the forms to Ashley and ME," with a meaningful emphasis on ME. This solution relies on the hope that academics are always listening to one another. That is not always the case.
  • Teach by anecdote or parable. Winston Churchill despised ending sentences with prepositions but despised convoluted correctives even more. He reportedly wrote to one miscreant: "That rubbish is something up with which I shall not put."
  • Shame and ridicule. This approach would include rude gossip and impersonations. While Ms. Mentor appreciates the long history of satire and sniping in academe, she has trouble imagining a successful piece of snark made out of "send it to Ashley and I."
  • Send an anonymous note. "When you say, ‘Send the memo to Ashley and I,’ you are using the incorrect case. You should be using the objective case after a preposition. Please correct your ways, as the rest of the world models itself after educated people like us."
  • Ask a senior colleague to intervene. Maybe a long-tenured colleague could be recruited to sit down with Professor Chair and tell him, very kindly, that "send it to Ashley and I" isn’t traditional grammar, and perhaps it would be useful to model the correct usage for others. However, many senior scholars—if asked to do this by their scared, untenured juniors—might think the whole issue is too incredibly ridiculous. It might wind up in their academic novels instead.
  • Use words and music. Maybe the cause needs a theme song, along the lines of "You say potato, I say po-tah-to." Ms. Mentor welcomes suggestions for a crowd-pleasing, soul-stirring anthem in support of good grammar.

Proper usage does sometimes have social rewards. According to Wired magazine, men who use "whom" on online dating sites get 31 percent more romantic contacts.

As for the original question, Ms. Mentor’s advice is to sigh and moan privately, but live with "Ashley and I." Prune it from your hearing, if you can. Try not to be corrupted by it, lest you hear yourself saying, "This book was given to myself and Ashley." Hold firm against writing an email like this: "We thought we wouldn’t like it, but we were suede by the argument."

Ultimately, even the egregious "me ’n’ Ashley" is not something about which to obsess. There are, literally, worse things to go nucular about.

Question: Now I am seeing "reticent" and "reluctant" confused with each other, a development that makes me shiver and remember when "impact" became a bad verb, which it still is. Do you think public shaming via, say, a raucous outpouring of tweets would stem the tide of ignorant folly before it overwhelms and drowns us all in a tsunami of inanity?

Answer: No.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor notes that in academe, March is a quieter, tireder reprise of October, known as Exploding Head Syndrome Month. There is usually some sort of spring break, and she hopes her flock will put the brakes on their attempts to do everything over their "vacations." Sleep, dear ones. Rest. Pet your cats.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries, and is planning a column on academic novels in the near future. Aphorisms and sage counsel are always welcome.

Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, anonymity is guaranteed, and identifying details are changed. No one will know if you’re the one who calls up distant colleagues, says "nucular," and cackles wildly before hanging up. You may not be alone.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

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