Archive | April, 2012

Looking Back: I vs. Me

24 Apr

Because the summation of my life’s work is due in one week in portfolio form, we’re going to use this week to look back at an always relevant post.  I’ve had people ask about this, and while my initial reaction is to ask, “WHY DON’T YOU SCOUR THE ARCHIVES TO BE CERTAIN THAT YOU DON’T MISS OUT ON A NOUGATY MORSEL OF GRAMMAR GOODNESS?!” I thought I would re-post one of Grammarsaurus Rex’s first entries about this always important topic.

My grandma is a stickler for grammar, so it’s no wonder that I ended up the way that I did.  But while I understand that a properly used subjunctive clause doesn’t get everyone’s heart racing, like it does mine, my grandma is a little less understanding.  She loves grammar, and if you don’t, well, you’d better figure out pretty quickly how to fake it in front of her.  But growing up, and even now, the grammar rule that she most ardently championed was the “I vs. me” rule.

I think that being very picky about the correct time to say “I” and the correct time to say “me” is a prerequisite to becoming a grandmother.  I like to imagine a line of potential grandmothers in a DMV-like facility, being questioned by some sort of grandmother sergeant.

Sergeant: Do you swear to spoil your grandchildren indiscriminantly?

Grandmother: Yes.

Sergeant: Do you swear to never–I mean never–look out your rearview mirror while backing out of your driveway?

Grandmother: Of course.

Sergeant: Will you insist on buying ill-fitted clothing from somewhere like Talbots or L.L. Bean for your teenaged grandchildren on their birthdays and major holidays?

Grandmother: Actually, if I could get my bag, I can show you this lovely turtleneck sweater vest I just bought for my grandson–

Sergeant: … and finally, do you swear that whenever one of your grandchildren says “me” when she should have said “I,” you will immediately correct her, and not let the conversation continue until she has proven that she is repentant and will never do it again, so help you God?

Grandmother: I do.

Nearly every conversation I had with my grandma growing up involved an interaction like this:

Me: … and Lisa and me went to the park, and we–

Grandma: Lisa and I.

Me: No, you weren’t there.  Lisa and me were there, and–

Grandma: Lisa and I.  It isn’t Lisa and me.  It’s Lisa and I.

Me: Oh, okay.  Anyway, we were at the park–

Grandma: Say it.

Me: Say what?

Grandma: Say “Lisa and I.”

Me: Lisa and I were at the park–

Grandma: Very good.

Me: Now I’ve forgotten my story.

The problem is that grandmas seem to indiscriminately favor “I” over “me.”  But guess what, world’s grandmas?  Sometimes it is “me.”  Here’s how to decide if you should be saying “I” or “me.”

“I” — I is a first-person singular subject pronoun.  This means that if, in your sentence (written or spoken), you are the person doing the action, you should use I.  This is pretty easy with simple sentences.  Cookie Monster being the exception, you won’t run into too many people seriously saying, “Me want cookies.”  If you want cookies, you recognize that you are the person doing the action (wanting), and so you say, “I want cookies.”  If there are multiple subjects in your sentence (“Lisa and I”), the same rule applies.  An old elementary school rule works well here: if you’re unsure whether to use I or me, try the sentence with just or me in it.  Another trick to decide between the two is to substitute he for I and him for me. Your ear is pretty (though not completely) reliable once the sentence is cleared up a bit.

“Me” — When we were younger, our grandmas went to work training us to say “I” instead of “me.”  Unfortunately, some of our grandmas have trained us too well: there are slews of people out there, walking around, saying foolish things like, “Well, just between you and I, something very secret and terrible is going to happen on Wall Street today.”

Let me say this very clearly: the correct answer is NOT ALWAYS I.  I is a subject, and me is an object: this means that I does something, whereas me has something done to it.  

If the pronoun is the object of a preposition (in simple terms, meaning that it immediately or almost immediately follows a preposition) like between, then you need to use the objective pronoun: me.  So it is correct to say “between you and me” or “behind Stan and me.”  In fact, anytime something is happening to your pronoun, the answer is me.  “He told Jack and me that the scary Wall Street thing wasn’t going to happen anymore” is correct, because the subject (“He”) is acting upon the two objects (“Jack” and “me”).  Remember, you could take “Jack” out to test if the sentence sounded right: “He told me that the scary Wall Street thing wasn’t going to happen anymore.”  However, even though your ears can be useful, don’t rely on them completely: “between you and I” might sound grandma-friendly, but it’s wrong.

So here’s to Grandma, who loved me enough from the very beginning to make sure that I didn’t talk like a fool.  And I mean from the very beginning.  I like to imagine myself as a baby, sitting in a high chair, smearing bananas all over my face, and looking up–with a face full of tenderness and wonder–to say my first fully-formed phrase: “Mommy and me love you.”  And as my parents weep and my aunts and uncle cheer, my grandma reaches out, holds my tiny little hands, looks me in the eyes, and then slaps me sternly on the wrist.

“Mommy and I love you.  Mommy and I.”

If I Were You … I’d Be A Turtle. (In This Scenario, I’m Talking To A Turtle)

11 Apr

I had a lot of happy moments in the time I worked at a bookstore.  There was the moment when a customer asked for “Shakespeare, but in English.”  There were the multiple, MULTIPLE times I was asked who wrote Dante’s Inferno.  There were the multiple, multiple, MULTIPLE (and I wish I were joking here) times I was cornered by an over-eager customer who insisted on telling me the storied history of Tinker Bell (the unsung hero of Disney.  Believe me.).

But one of the happiest moments came when I overheard two customers arguing by the video games about when it was or was not appropriate to say “I were” instead of “I was.”

Enter: English-degreed bookseller desperate to prove she had not wasted four years of education.

Bounding around the corner, I practically gasped out, “When … it’s … in … the subjunctive mood.  The … subjunctive.”

And there, with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath; in shorts and a t-shirt, with a bookstore dog chain dangling around my neck; with my $8/hour paycheck and my working every weekend, I realized … yes.  Yes, I have put my education well to use.  This is the dream.

Then a kid threw up in the Clearance section.

Let me now share with you the information I used then to validate my existence.  This post is useful for me too, because I’ve been needing new ways forms of validation.  Lately, I’ve just been going to movie theaters in malls and getting them to put that stamp on my parking ticket.

Let’s talk about the subjunctive.

Today, we’ll just hit on the subjunctive mood in one specific context: the verb “to be.”  The subjunctive may pop up in a later post, like Alfred Hitchcock pops up in all of his movies, or like Lindsay Lohan does in those fancy Asian beauty parlors where they let bees sting your lips until you can see them without a mirror.

The subjunctive mood is used to express states of unreality: states that do not exist.  You know, like a world where pigs fly, or where gas is cheap, or where people don’t start most of their sentences by saying, “I’m not gonna lie.”  Let’s clear this up: unless you’re Michael Bay telling me that you “totally get” feminism, I operate under the assumption that you aren’t about to lie to me.  So next time, don’t bother informing me of your fantastic truthiness before you say, “Not gonna lie, I totally love pizza.”

Anyway, when I say “states of unreality,” I mean that the subjunctive is often used to express or describe a state which the speaker (or writer) wishes or imagines to be true, but which is not.  When a sentence is expressing one such state of unreality, the subjunctive form of the verb is used.

Like I said, today we’ll just be focusing on one verb, so here are some examples.

Let’s start with a phrase we’re familiar with: “If I were you.”  Think about it.  We say it all the time, so it doesn’t sound strange.  But generally, “I” doesn’t take the verb “were.” Most of the other sentences we read are going to be more like:

I was happy to be dancing.

I was going to leave the beach, but then I didn’t leave the beach.

It would sound ridiculous to say “I were happy to be dancing” or “I were going to leave the beach.”  And it sounds ridiculous, of course, because it’s wrong.

Then what gives with the phrase “If I were you”?  Well, you guessed it, because I already told you: it’s the subjunctive.

The phrase “if I were you” is that state of unreality.  I am me.  I am not you.  In the sentence, I am supposing something that doesn’t exist and that cannot exist.  Therefore, I choose the subjunctive verb to express this.

It’s easy to make a the “to be” verbs subjunctive.  It goes like this:

Present                          Present Subjunctive

I am                                  I be
He/she/it is                   He/she/it were
We/you/they are          We/you/they be

Past                                Past Subjunctive

I was                               I were
He/she/it was             He/she/it were
We/you/they were     We/you/they were

So that means that instead of saying “If I was you,” you instead hop over to the past subjunctive column, and make it “If I were you.”

Here are some more examples of ways you might use the subjunctive:

If I were currently President of the United States, I would be running the country into the ground.

If he were taller, he could reach the roof.

She insists that I be shy.  But I’m not shy! 

These sentences use the subjunctive form because they are not true.  A lot of sentences like this will start with “if.”  A sentence or clause that starts with “if” is definitely a good tip-off that you need the subjunctive, but it won’t be true every time.

For example, in my first sentence, I use the subjunctive because I am not currently the President of the United States, and that’s not going to change.  However, say I’m running for office.  I could say something like, “If I was elected, I would make candy rain down from the heavens.” That would be okay, because if I’m running for office, it’s POSSIBILE that I will be elected.  It’s not an unreality; it just hasn’t happened yet.

Kids, this is the lesson you should take from this: never be afraid to air your grammar grievances in a retail environment.  Just please don’t air your real grievances, like, “Why isn’t this book free?” (real complaint) or, “Why don’t you organize your books by color?” (real suggestion).

The American public, ladies and gentlemen.

Isn’t It Ironic?

1 Apr

What Alanis Morissette did with her song “Ironic” to confuse a generation of neon-fanny-pack-wearing, Legends of the Hidden Temple-watching, Surge-chugging, Third Eye Blind-listening, Topanga-crushing, Beanie Babies-hoarding, Duck Hunt gun-wielding ’90s kids, hipsters have done with their commitment to faux-irony to confuse a generation of … I don’t know, what defines us now? … people who miss living in the ’90s.  What a mantra.  No wonder they call us the “greatest generation.”

… oh, really?  That’s not us?  That doesn’t seem fair.  I fail to see how there is a difference between World War II veterans and twenty-somethings whose current contribution to society is leading discussions on how “totally awesome Tamagotchis were.”

[But dude, weren’t Tamagotchis totally awesome?]

Let me also say that I’m not really a fan of anti-hipster humor for this reason: it’s not funny or original.  If you can come up with a hipster joke that says something more original than, “Ha, uh … oh, yeah, I liked that … you know, BEFORE it was cool … and, uh, I like old stuff,” please let me know.  To date, there is just one hipster meme (despite its minor grammatical problem) that I think has pulled this joke off successfully:

One very real problem hipsters have created, though, is a resurgence of a confusing use of the word “irony.”  Are you listening to Phil Collins purposefully or ironically?  Are you wearing an “I Love Funyuns” t-shirt because you really love Funyuns, or is it ironic?  I’m not going to dissect every instance of irony and non-irony in hipster culture.  As we’ll soon see, irony is tough to define and is largely contextual.  So yes, sometimes hipsters do things that are truly ironic.  But sometimes, irony is a misnomer.  As in … I’ve got this awful moustache previously donned only by un-cool guys … but I’m a cool guy … irony!  That’s not irony.  That’s, in the vocabulary of elementary-school playground games, Opposite Day.

And hipsters, hear me: I do not ever want to re-visit Opposite Day.  Opposite Day is the worst day because YOU CAN NEVER CONFIRM IF IT IS TRULY OPPOSITE DAY.  If I ask you if it’s Opposite Day, and you say yes, is it really?  Because if it’s really Opposite Day, and you say yes, then you actually mean no, and then it’s NOT Opposite day; but if you say no, and you actually mean yes, HOW WILL I EVER KNOW, BECAUSE YOU KEEP SAYING NO?!

Opposite Day caused me my second true existential crisis at the age of eight.  The first one occurred when my kindergarten teacher read us the acclaimed existentialist kids’ books, “Goodnight, Camus,”  “The Little Engine That Could … Validate Its Own Existence,” and “If You Give A Mouse a Cookie, Does It Even Matter?”

Let’s talk about irony.

There are quite a few different types of irony: verbal irony, dramatic irony, socratic irony, historical irony, etc.  Today we’re going to focus on the two forms most currently used and debated: verbal irony and situational irony.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is often confused with sarcasm, and for good reason: they are quite similar.  Put simply, verbal irony is saying something when you, in fact, mean the exact opposite.  That sounds like the definition of sarcasm, right?  It pretty much is.  Really, the only difference between verbal irony and sarcasm is that sarcasm (by definition) has cruel or ill intentions, whereas verbal irony is verbal irony despite intent.

For example, saying, “Gee, this is great weather” when it’s NOT great weather is verbal irony, but not sarcasm, because you’re not trying to hurt anybody’s feelings.  Saying, “Nice shirt” to somebody when you actually mean it is an UGLY shirt is both verbal irony and sarcasm because, well, it’s mean.

Situational Irony

Here’s where the trouble starts.  The basic definition of situational irony is that, similarly to verbal irony, there is a discrepancy between what is expected and what actually occurs.  Why is this troublesome?  Two reasons:

1. The word is defined by situations and personal expectations.  By its very definition, irony then varies on a person-to-person basis.

2. I don’t think this definition is comprehensive enough.

Before we talk about what situational irony is, though, let’s talk about what it isn’t.  Here are some examples:

“She wore the same shirt as me yesterday.  It was totally ironic.”  This isn’t irony.  This is a coincidence.  If you own the same shirt as one of your friends, it’s actually pretty likely that at some point, you will wear it on the same day.

“They won the championship game.  The last time they won it was ten years ago … to this day!  How ironic.”  This isn’t irony.  This is an interesting fact, and probably a testament to good coaching.

“I’ve never had an accident, but I got rear-ended right as I was pulling into my driveway!  Ironic!”  That is not ironic.  That is a bummer.  Also, expected, because most accidents happen within ten miles from your home.

Now, let’s talk about what situational irony IS.

Like the definition says, situational irony is when what actually occurs is in stark contrast to what would be expected to occur.  I’ve seen some debates over this example: is it “ironic” if it snows in May?  Going just by that definition, maybe.  What one expects in May–nice, sunny weather–is in stark contrast to what actually occurred: snow.

My verdict, though?  No.  That is not irony.  This is why I think most of the basic definitions for irony are lacking.  Some may disagree, but I have high standards for irony.  For something to be truly ironic, there cannot just be a discrepancy between the expectation and the reality.  There also has to be that something extra, that intangible quality, that je ne sais quoi (literally: “Jene, no: say, ‘Qwa.'”).

Behind irony should be an action or a purposefulness that causes or results in an (often) unfortunate yin to the planned-for yang.  Often, it is the very actions that meant to precipitate the yang that cause the yin.  That’s irony.

If I am terrified of diseases, and my incessant cleaning and scrubbing somehow causes me to GET a disease, that’s situational irony.  I actively behaved in a way to precipitate yang and to avoid yin, but it was those very actions that caused yin to occur.

All of the bullets fired at President Reagan during an assassination attempt missed.  The one that hit him only did so because it ricocheted off of the bullet-proof glass.  That’s situational irony: an active attempt to avoid one situation (being hit by a bullet) was, in fact, the very thing that caused a bullet wound.

Some may disagree with my stricter rules on what is or is not ironic.  I’ll admit here and now that I’m an irony snob.  But I’ve just about had it with people saying things like, “My lightbulb burnt out.  It was totally ironic.”

And just as a final wrap-up, let’s go through some of Alanis’ lines from “Ironic” and help her out by giving her the terms she actually wanted to be using.

“An old man turned ninety-eight.  He won the lottery and died the next day.”  That’s not irony.  That’s old age. Also, Alanis, you haven’t told us if the old man had any precipitating health conditions.  Also, isn’t the average life-span for males like 75 years old?  This guy is used to beating the odds.  I’m frankly not surprised that he won, nor that he died.

“It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay.”  Not irony.  Health code violation.

“It’s rain on your wedding day.”  That’s not irony.  That’s weather.

“It’s a traffic jam when you’re already late.”  The traffic jam is probably why you’re late, actually.

“It’s meeting the man of your dreams … and then meeting his beautiful wife.”  That, in literary terms, is actually known as an “introduction.”

“It’s ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.”  Is that irony, or is that the wrong attitude to have when you’re visiting a spoon factory, Alanis?  Show a little thankfulness.


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