This is How You Sound When Your Grammar is Bad


I know, I know. Caring about grammar makes me a square. And I admit I get my own grammar wrong all the time, especially when speaking. The mere act of writing this post makes me a hypocrite.

But grammar still matters, and here’s why: some people who follow you on social media have an ear for it. When you make a mistake, you might not care…but all they hear are the grammatically equivalent errors. Those errors make you sound like a caveman. Because some mistakes are more common than others, they’ll generally get a pass.

But when you get a sentence wrong on social media, people like me are secretly judging you.

It’s not that we want to. It’s that we can’t help but hear the error. We can’t help but imagine the grammatically equivalent sentences that make you sound like Grog the Cave-dwelling Mammal. Don’t believe me? Here are a few.

“I Could Care Less” = “I Care About This”

What you said: “I could care less.”

How it sounds: “I care, at least a little bit.”

What you should say: “I couldn’t care less.”

Unless your goal is to tell people how much you care, you should never say “I could care less.”

As grammar sage Weird Al teaches us, saying you “could care less” means you care just a little bit. If you “couldn’t care any less,” then you are at the very bottom of caring. So when someone drives down the street and shouts “Idiot!” don’t reply with, “I care about this at least a little bit!” It’s not a good comeback. In fact, it’s almost never a good sentence.

Dangling Modifiers = Weird, Senseless Sentences

What you said: “Although unpleasant and stinky, Jerry made it through the swamp.”

How it sounds: “Jerry, unpleasant and stinky as he is, made it through the swamp.”

What you should say: “Jerry made it through the unpleasant, stinky swamp.”

A modifier is a word or phrase that elaborates on another. The problem: people leave dangling modifiers and end up “modifying” the exact wrong noun. This usually happens when you begin a sentence without any regard for where it will end.

This mistake can lead to strange, impossible sentences.

After admitting to the affair, tears streamed from the politician’s eyes.

Tears, not being people, can’t have affairs. Even if they could, they would need a voice box and supply of air before owning up to their infidelity in public. But that sentence is all wrong, because the intended subject of the sentence is the politician. But we only get the “politician’s eyes.” Even if you rewrote this sentence–“The politician’s eyes teared after admitting to the affair”–it wouldn’t make sense. It might contain a relevant physical detail (tears streaming), but this sentence will always sound “wrong” to anyone with an ear for grammar.

Putting “I” in Everything = Self-Righteous and Wrong

What you said: “Bring the food over to Alice and I.”

How it sounds: “Bring I the food.”

What you should say: “Bring the food over here.”

I’m a writer, so I often get harangued when I say “me” instead of “I.” I admit to conversational clumsiness. I’m not this articulate in person. But every once in a while I’m right to use “me” instead of “I.” How could this be? Consider the following sentence:

Me and Troi are going to the holodeck.

Sounds perfectly fine, right? Wrong. Let’s say you take “Troi” out of the equation and adjust accordingly. It becomes:

Me is going to the holodeck.

That’s why the original sentence is wrong. You would never  say, “me is,” so logically you wouldn’t say, “me and Troi are.” You say “Troi and I.”

Most people learn this fact in school and assume that you should criticize everyone who says “me” instead of “I” ever. But that’s simply not a hard and fast rule. Observe:

When we’re done with the holodeck, can you bring some champagne to Troi and I?

Sounds good, right? You’re not saying “Me is.” You’re saying “I” like a true gentleman. Everyone thinks this sounds right. Let’s, regrettably, take Troi out of the occasion once again and see if the logic of the sentence holds up:

When I’m done with the holodeck, can you bring some champagne to I?

Now you just sound like Greyworm. “Bring some champagne to I” is just as dumb as saying “Me is going to the holodeck.”

Rule of thumb? Use “me” and “I” when it’s logically consistent, as if you weren’t adding someone else to the list.

Replacing “Well” With “Good” = Instant Caveman Status

What you said: “How am I? I am good.”

How it sounds: “How am I? I am person.”

What you should say: “How am I? I am well.”

I admit I say “doing good” all the time, and it kills me a little bit inside.

If I’m handing out free sandwiches to the homeless, I’m “doing good.” But if my journey was smooth, the flight went well. Technically speaking, if someone asks you how you’re faring, you shouldn’t bust out a non sequitur and describe your qualities. “I’m great” might technically be true when you say it, but that doesn’t make it a grammatically correct response.

It sounds like nitpicking–and, considering just how pervasive this mistake is, it is–but when you reply with “I’m doing good,” you might as well also say…

I swam good.

I slept good.

I spoke good.

All of those sound wrong because they are. It should be “well.” You swim well, you sleep well, you are well.

Don’t apply “well” to everything because it makes you sound smarter, either. The hamburger is only “well” if that’s how you like your beef cooked. Otherwise, it was good.

Putting “Whom” Where it Doesn’t Belong = Wearing Non-Prescription Glasses

What you said: “Whom robbed the bank?”

How it sounds: “Him robbed the bank?”

What you should say: “Who robbed the bank?”

“The Office” has already addressed this particular problem:

Michael: It’s whoever, not whomever.
Ryan: No, it’s whomever…
Michael: No…whomever is never actually right.
Jim: Well, sometimes it’s right.
Creed: Michael is right. It’s a made-up word used to trick students.
Andy: No. Actually, whomever is the formal version of the word.
Oscar: Obviously, it’s a real word, but I don’t know when to use it correctly.
Michael (to the camera): Not a native speaker.
Kevin: I know what’s right, but I’m not gonna say because you’re all jerks who didn’t come see my band last night.
Ryan: Do you really know which one is correct?
Kevin: I don’t know.
Pam: It’s whom when it’s the object of the sentence and who when it’s the subject.
Phyllis: That sounds right.
Michael: Well, it sounds right, but is it?
Stanley: How did Ryan use it, as an object?
Ryan: As an object…
Kelly: Ryan used me as an object.

Here’s the short version:

He/she/they: use “who”
Him/her/them: use “whom”

A good rule of thumb for the who/whom rule is to remember the phrase “To Whom It May Concern” because it’s grammatically correct. If the object of the sentence is “him” or “her” or “them,” and not “he” or “she” or “they,” then you generally need to use “whom.” To whom does it concern? It concerns him. It doesn’t concern he. It’s easy to remember because both “whom” and “him” with an “m.” “Her,” of course, is the female version of “him,” so the same rules apply.

At the heart of this grammatical jumberwub is the knowledge of subject vs. object. The subject is the noun doing something, and the object is the noun to whom the action is done. (See what I did there?)

In the sentence “Darryl sent a letter,” “Darryl” is the one sending a letter. In the sentence, “I sent a letter to Darryl,” Darryl has become the object, the person upon whom the action is being done. Same person, different grammatical function.

But I don’t really care when people say “Who are you sending the letter to?” I say it myself because it’s ubiquitous. What bugs me is when people say “whom” when it’s wrong. It’s the equivalent of a hipster wearing glasses when they have perfect vision. They just want to look smart.

Do we know whom pulled the fire alarm?

No! No, no, no!

In this sentence, “Whom” is actually the subject, so it should be “Who.” “Who” is the one who did it. The fire alarm is the “whom,” the literal and grammatical object upon which the action was done.

“He” pulled the fire alarm. “She” pulled the fire alarm. You wouldn’t say, “Him pulled the fire alarm!” Yet that’s exactly the same mistake you’re making by inserting “whom” where it doesn’t belong. You might think you sound okay, but for people who’ve seen “The Office,” we know you sound like a caveman.

If, knowing this, you continue using “whom” where it doesn’t belong, I’ll bet you’re wearing a scarf in the middle of summer, too, and you probably could care less.

This is the kind of stuff I write for businesses and individuals. If you want content like it in your next book or on your blog, contact me.

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