Old Obsessions

Sometimes it’s hard to let go. For a few years after I stopped teaching English, I kept a section of this site dedicated to writing-related topics. Somehow, people from all over the world found what I had written and started emailing me, asking questions about grammar or punctuation or usage. At first I welcomed the attention and spent a lot of time and thought into responses, some of which I would publish on the blog. After a while, though, the steady stream of emails overwhelmed me, piling up in my inbox like National Geographic magazines in an old hoarder’s basement. And whenever I did answer one on the blog, I found myself having to field a flood of comments from people asking a slightly altered version of the same question. It was all a bit too much, so I shut the whole thing down.

Old Phone
It has been over ten years since my last post in the Writing section (other than the one to officially call it quits), but I still get a grammar question every once in a while from someone who wandered into the English Rules ghost town. Most recently, someone asked for the correct form of the following sentence:

What should I do when me or my direct report goes on vacation or extended leave?

She didn’t really need my help after all, because she correctly suggested that it should be written as follows:

What should I do when my direct report or I go on vacation or extended leave?

When I find myself writing something like the first version of this sentence, the first thing I do is try to be courteous and place others before myself. So, I immediately change “me or my direct report” to “my direct report or me.” Then I apply a simple test by temporarily dropping the others from the sentence to see if it sounds right, like so:

What should I do when me goes on vacation or extended leave?

Now it’s obvious that “me” is incorrect, and a quick check on “when I go…” confirms it as the correct choice. Changing “me” to “I” requires a correspond change of verb form to “go,” which leaves us with the correct version of the sentence:

What should I do when my direct report or I go on vacation or extended leave?

If I recall correctly, the general rule of thumb to get a compound subject joined by “or” to agree with the predicate is to match the noun that is closer to the verb (“I go…”).

As it turns out, I answered a similar question back in 2005, but it’s fun to wade back into past obsessions from time to time.

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2 Responses to Old Obsessions

  1. Svein Vargan says:

    Back then, you had a post on hanged vs hung. (I read it just now). As I know that old English is influenced by Norse, it made me think:

    In Norwegian, we have verb pairs: One describing the action, the other the result:
    Take sit, for example: In English, you sit down, then you sit still.

    In Norwegian: Du setter deg ned (the action), så sitter du stille (the result).

    Hanged/hung is the same in the past tense:
    You hengte the picture on the wall (the action). The picture hang on the wall (the result).

    So maybe this phenomenon is a Norse remains?

    • Karl Swedberg says:

      Very interesting! I wish I knew enough about the history of the English language to say whether it is a Norse remnant or not. Regarding sit, we can see two forms of the verb if we change it from active to passive voice: you sit down, then you are seated.

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