You and me and a few linguistic stinkeroos | Whale’s Tales

I am a student of language. However, I never criticize spoken goofs. That could earn me a smack, well earned. In conversation, I say let fly.

No, I restrict my comments strictly to the written stuff. Yet, even I, with the super-duper fortitude I have honed over the decades, cannot leave the following stinkeroo I recently overheard alone: “Me and her went to Spokane.”

Why does it grate on me? Because it’s the sort of stinkeroo that makes people sound dumb, even when they aren’t. Don’t do that to yourselves, people.

I’m here to tell you that getting it right is no big deal most of the time. I believe that errors like this stem from the hell-beast terms we use to teach kids grammar in Western languages such as English, French, German, Italian, or Spanish, terms that sprang from Latin when it was the language of academic and official Europe. Terms that linger into adulthood and give us the permanent willies and twitches.

But it’s 2023. We can do better.

Okay, so that sentence above is a stinkeroo. But from whence cometh the stench?

Not from a swamp monster, but from a couple of misplaced pronouns we can set smelling sweetly in a jiffy, whatever that is. Pronouns are useful little buggers we employ so we don’t have repeat the names of all those persons, places or things over and over again.

Pronouns like “I” and “they” and “he” or “she” are shorthand stand-ins for subject nouns, and we use them both when we perform actions like “walking” or “going” that don’t impact other entities directly, and when we perform actions that do impact others, like the Mariners did when they administered a good old-fashioned whoopin’ on the Astros over the weekend.

But in the case of the Mariners, the whooped would be “them” or in cousin contexts, “me” or “him” or “her” or when preceded by prepositions like “to” or “for” or “with.”

Want to hear how dumb the “me and her” sentence really sounds? Strip away either one of the improperly-used object pronouns in the sentence, “Me and her went to town,” but leave the second intact, and you get “Me went to town,” or “Her went to town.” That exactly what you’d be saying. Is that what you mean to say? Jeez, hope not.

Enough of that.

Now onto something more tricky, like… time and tense.

What’s the difference between the simple past, as in “Tom suffered a heart attack,” and present perfect, “Tom has suffered a heart attack?” Both refer to the past, so what gives?

Well, folks who study linguistics will tell you it’s a matter not of tense, but of something calls aspect, which is an interesting subject, but for another time.

Here’s a simple answer. Simple past has no relevance to the present except to say that something happened at some undisclosed time before the present moment, before “now.” That’s all it does. Could have been a year ago, could have been 10,000 years ago. No way to tell without a time reference.

On the other hand, present perfect refers to what happened in the recent past but is relevant to now. With the example, “Tom has had a heart attack,” the implication could be, “We’ve got to get him to a hospital, now!” or “I’ve got to call the paramedics, now!” It’s correct to say, “Brutus stabbed Caesar,” because the stabbing has no relevance to now except historical, but wrong to say “Brutus has stabbed Caesar,” because it does not carry the relevance of the recent past.

I hate to see news stories that begin with a sentence like, “The Royal Order of Water Buffaloes named Fred Flintstone winner of the Joe Rockhead prize.” When I read it, I always ask “when?” With no time or date attribution, I can’t tell. Drives me crazy. Writers orient readers by giving their sentences a time stamp with the simple past. For instance, “On Sunday evening.”

Alternatively, you can launch a paragraph that begins with a sentence in the present perfect like, “The Royal Order of Water Buffaloes has named…” and then reveal in the following paragraph or sentence when Freddie boy got his award.

I can’t end this without mentioning one last irritation:

“September the 11th” — wrong. Why is it wrong? Because it names the eleventh September in a series of Septembers. Say instead, “September 11.”

That’s better.

Robert Whale can be reached at