Writing well is a key skill in the business world. Your colleagues, clients, stakeholders and target audience are likely to be well-educated people. They may well notice a split infinitive, a misplaced possessive apostrophe or an ill-advised Oxford comma. Making simple, or even sophisticated, grammatical errors can affect how you’re viewed by your audience, particularly if they have a favourite grammatical pet peeve.
You can imagine that as an English Literature graduate, and lawyer-turned-copywriter and avid member of the grammar police, I may have a few grammatical pet peeves. It’s an unusual sort of joy that somebody gets out of grammar, but there you go, we exist.
One thing I noticed frequently in my time in business writing in a law firm, was the mis-use of “me”, “myself” and “I”. So here are some simple clarifications:
How I might confuse myself with something that’s not me
Referring to yourself in the first person is easy right?
- “I ate cake for breakfast.”
- “I’m decorating the bathroom with tessellating mosaics.”
- “I write copy for websites”
I’m sure you’ve cracked the use of that singular, nominative, first person pronoun.
But let’s throw in another person, or a reflexive pronoun and suddenly mass grammar chaos unfolds. Even in professional circles, you’ll see (at least the equivalent phrasing):
- “Me and Cheryl are off to see the Spice Girls’ World Tour.”
- “Myself and Ronald are heading to the pub after work”
- “Come to the kitchen for 2pm for tea and biscuits with Glenda and myself.”
Cringe! It’s like chewing tin foil isn’t it? So when can you use “me” or “myself” without invoking the painful grimaces from the grammar police?
Accuse me, don’t confuse me
“Me” is accusative.
Use it when you’re the object (rather than the subject) of the sentence:
“Polly drove me to the shops.”
Simple. You didn’t need me to tell you that one.
Even in the plural, if you’re accusative, you remain a “me”
So, even if you have another person in your sentence, “me” remains accusative.
This is the one that causes the most hiccups (or hiccoughs? I never know).
“If you have any problems, please contact Susan and I.” But you wouldn’t say “if you have any problems, please contact I”, would you? You’d say me. So why have you changed it because Susan got involved? “If you have any problems, please contact Susan and me.”
Or another example:
“Last week, my brother told my mum and I that he wanted to become a blog writer” Sounds vaguely right, doesn’t it? Sort of sounds like good grammar? But it’s wrong. You wouldn’t say “he told I that he wanted to become a blog writer.” Use me. If it works in the singular, it works in the plural too.
If you’re subjective, you’re always an “I”
So, if “Polly drove me to the shops” and you’re hanging out with Polly today, she doesn’t change your lovely single person nominative pronoun.
“Polly and I went to the shops.” Super. Enjoy the shops with Polly.
As opposed to “Polly and me went to the shops.” Ouch. Unless you’re Ja Ja Binks, you wouldn’t habitually say “me went to the shops.”
If your education was anything like mine, you weren’t taught about reflexive verbs until you studied French.
Nobody explained the English versions, because it’s all intuitive to a native speaker, isn’t it?
Generally it is. You’ll naturally say that “I refer to myself in the first person” or “I market myself as a legal copywriter” or that “I sing to myself in the shower,” (unless of course you have a wider audience for your shower concerts).
Most commonly, “myself” is simply the reflexive version of me, to be used with verbs that point back to yourself.
It’s not some sort of aggrandised version of “I” or “me”. You’d be amazed how often you’ll see “myself” misused:
“Linda and myself will arrange that for you shortly.”
Really? Why are you inexplicably reflexive here? Just use “I” when “I” fits without Linda.
Emphasis on myself
You might also use the reflexive if you want added emphasis.
Geoffrey thought that ‘Shrek’ was the best movie he’d ever seen. I, myself, consider ‘Finding Nemo’ to be vastly superior.
Sounds a little pretentious though doesn’t it? And often it is. But at least it’s correct.
And finally, comparisons. In colloquial English, we’ve become a little lazy with comparisons. It’s generally accepted that you can say that “Martha has more blogs on her website than me.”
As a real grammar nerd, you’ll know that comparisons are still nominative. So really, “Martha has more blogs on her website than I do.” She’s also taller than I am and has better taste in clothes than I do. She’s definitely not more pedantic than me.
Have a check of your sentence in the most simplified terms. Reduce it to just describe what “I” did or what happened to “me”. If it doesn’t make sense, because now “me went for Ikea meatballs” or “Freddy took I to see the Olympic gymnastics”, then you’ve picked the wrong pronoun.
Don’t let the other people in the sentence put you off. They don’t change who you are. Ever. Not even in your syntax.
If you’d like to hire a professional copywriter or proof-reader to avoid your clients’ grammatical pet peeves, get in contact with me for a quote.
Grammar isn’t always a rigid tool. You can bend some of the rules of grammar to suit your purposes. But there are certain rules you can’t change without being incorrect.
You can split an infinitive to validly sound a little more conversational
And you can start a sentence with “and” or “but” to amend the rhythm and flow of your copy.
But there are no occasions on which the correct use of “fewer” can be replaced with “less”.
You see fewer trains on strike days
There are fewer days in June than July
There’s less impact in your copy when it’s incorrect
And you’ll have less credibility if you have poor grammar.
Use “fewer” for countable nouns, and “less” for uncountable nouns.
Another example that riles the grammar police is confusing “myself” with “me” or “I”.
I love the rules of grammar (nominative)
And grammar that’s plain wrong pains me (accusative)
So, I myself (emphatic, but usually sounds pretentious)
Have taken it upon myself (reflexive)
To post about it, revealing the extent of the grammar nerd within me (nominative)
This tends to go awry when you add somebody else into the mix, and you’ll see sentences like:
Myself and Bob are hosting a new podcast
Please contact Susan and I
Me and James will get back to you soon
This rule’s pretty simple. Just take out the other person in the sentence and check whether or not you’ve used the right form of “me” or “I”. You’ll find that “myself” is nearly always the wrong one to pick, unless you’re describing yourself reflexively.
So while copywriters will tell you that grammar is flexible, it only works if your ‘flex’ is still correct.
Bend the grammar rules to enhance your meaning, but don’t break them and damage your credibility.