I don’t know if anyone would be brave enough to take on Sir Alex Ferguson, who recently denied he planned to sell Manchester United football player Wayne Rooney by saying: “There’s no issue between Wayne and I.”
Sir Alex, manager of Manchester United football club and subject of a Harvard Business School case study, had already banned two newspapers from his press conference for reporting that Mr. Rooney would be leaving. He is also famous for subjecting players to “hair dryer” tirades.
His “between Wayne and I” mistake is a common one. As an Oxford Dictionaries online writing tip explains: “A preposition such as ‘between’ should be followed by an objective pronoun (such as ‘me,’ ‘him,’ ‘her,’ and ‘us’) rather than a subjective pronoun (such as ‘I,’ ‘he,’ ‘she,’ and ‘we’). Saying ‘between you and I’ is grammatically equivalent to saying ‘between him and she,’ or ‘between we,’ which are both clearly wrong. People make this mistake because they know it’s not correct to say, for example, ‘John and me went to the shops.’ They know that the correct sentence would be ‘John and I went to the shops.’ But they then mistakenly assume that the words ‘and me’ should be replaced by ‘and I’ in all cases.”
Successful football managers can get away with it. What about ordinary wage slaves? Employers and professors say grammatical lapses and poor writing are everywhere, and have been for a long time.
Aïda Alaka, a U.S. law professor, wrote in a 2010 article in the Journal of Legal Education: “Many of my brightest students have, by their own admission, no grasp of the rules governing writing.”
Human resources directors at leading U.S. companies told a 2004 survey that up to a third of their employees could not write properly.
But can HR directors write? A reader sent me an internal memo from her head of HR, complete with misplaced apostrophes and singular subjects matched with plural verbs. This is the man in charge of our recruitment, she said despairingly.
What should you do if one of your staff or, worse, one of your bosses, e-mails a customer saying “Thank you for meeting Rob and I last week?”
The first option is to lighten up. Even people who know the rules don’t always follow them. If you have forgotten your keys, do you really ring the doorbell and shout to your spouse “it’s I?”
Yes, people may be sending out semi-literate correspondence, but the teaching of grammar has been poor for so long that most of the customers probably don’t notice.
This won’t do, of course. There are still plenty who do notice. And if you have read this far you are probably one of those who reacts to an e-mail saying “your wrong about that” the way Sir Alex does to a final whistle when his team is a goal behind.
So what should you do? If the errant employee reports to you, it is fairly easy. You say: “It’s not your fault, because you probably weren’t taught this at school, but I would like to show you how apostrophes work.” Or how to decide whether to use ‘I’ or ‘me.’ (The answer is to remove the other person. If you say “they spoke to me,” then you say “they spoke to Gerard and me,” not “Gerard and I.”)
Many managers find recipients of such advice grateful. They often ask: “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?”
After that, explaining to staff members how to improve their writing becomes harder. As Prof. Alaka says, they “might not know what we are talking about when we suggest that they eliminate the passive voice or the improper use of gerunds.” Concentrating on discrete improvements is more effective. Proper use of apostrophes is not the same as decent writing, but at least it eliminates the worst offences.
What if the miscreant is someone senior? You could send the offending missive back, adding: “I fear this may have become garbled in transmission.” But this is unlikely to enlighten the culprit or endear you to him or her. You still have to work together. The same goes for: “How on earth did you get any job, let alone the one you’ve got?”
Probably the safest way is to suggest a writing course for all employees, pointing out some of the mistakes they keep making.
None of these options is easy. Few people like a pedant. But I do. If I have made any mistakes, or if you think I can improve my writing style, please don’t hold back.
And between you and me, if you told all your colleagues and underlings the same, they would probably respect you for it.