Word Court

M me and I incorrectly. For example, "Will you go to lunch with Mary and I?" or "Why did you not contact Jerry or I ?" I know that in both cases it should be me and not I, but I have a problem explaining this. My friends all think that I do not know the correct usage because English is not my first language.

Gallina Franz

English-speakers get into trouble surprisingly often with I in constructions that include other persons ("Mary and I," "Jerry or I"). But, really, there's no mystery about I and me: one uses me exactly where one would if no other person were involved. "Will you go to lunch with . . ." -- who would ever say "I" at that point?

Woman at restaurant This test, though, won't help with one phrase that people commonly get wrong: between you and me. The rule here is that between you and me is always right, and between you and I is always wrong. This despite my correspondent Richard K. Redfern, of Bradenton, Florida, who writes, "I have come to believe that between you and I is good English. Among well-educated people I have heard between you and I much more often than between you and me."

Surely well-educated people ought to want to demonstrate a familiarity with the rules of grammar. Between is a preposition, and the objects of prepositions must be in the form of objects, not subjects. As Theodore Bernstein observed in The Careful Writer, most people "would not dream of saying or writing between him and they or between her and we. . . ." He argued, too, that "an isolated instance or so of bad grammar culled from even the most gifted writers does not constitute a valid authentication for that particular misusage."

Aproactive. It is an ugly word that, to me, has no meaning. "I want a proactive response to this request." Why not simply and more clearly say "I want an energetic response" or "I want a decisive response"?

Dennis W. Johnson

Language, like clothing and food,
Book of Kings English has its fashions, and in certain circles proactive is fashionable for the time being. Those who like the word find it forward-thinking and alert, and they may be tempted to use it where they want to convey that feeling--whether its actual meaning, which is "pre-emptive" or "anticipatory," applies or not. When the word crops up, perhaps you should begin saying mildly, or writing in margins, "Do you mean anticipatory?" Until then there's no point in being, well, proactive. It's best to judge a word case by case.

For free, for free, for free! These words are used incessantly and don't even sound right. Is this usage correct?

Frank Rossillo

The phrase has been used often enough for it to qualify as accepted informal usage, but standard English it's not. Free means "for nothing," after all, not just "nothing." Once, for free was meant jocularly -- rather the way some people use irregardless now. As your ear has told you, its grammar is peculiar. Free being an adjective or an adverb, it can't very well be the object of the preposition for. Dictionaries tend to call the phrase an idiom and treat it as a variant on free alone -- which it is. Still, pity the person who has written, "I wanted to get the car free." One can't tell whether the writer has entered a sweepstakes or called a tow truck. Here, if the sentence is about a sweepstakes, the temptation to write for free is great.

Ione of the many things that aren't being taught in high school anymore." The proper grammar is "One (of the many things [prepositional phrase]) that isn't . . . ," no? Is that not being taught in eighth grade anymore?

Magnifying glass Erika Warmbrunn

"One of the many things I admire about Word Court's readers is that they say what they think." This sentence and the high school sentence, you'll notice, are constructed along different lines. This one fits together conceptually so: "Of the many things I admire . . . , one is that . . ." But "Of the many things that aren't being taught . . . , this is one" is how the other one works. The version you propose, therefore, would not be correct.

Have you recently had a language dispute that you would like this column to resolve? Write to Word Court in care of The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or send E-mail to MsGrammar@TheAtlantic.com. All letters become the property of Word Court.

Illustrations by Anthony Martin

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1996; Word Court; Volume 278, No. 4; page 124.