Work of Art: They gave it to she and I

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By Art Trujillo

Martha Johnsen often poses questions on tricky grammar issues.

Monday, on her morning radio program, she asked which of the two is correct: “He and his wife” or “Him and his wife”?

Donning my Language Cop uniform, I quickly called Martha, the morning DJ on KFUN, and explained that both are correct, depending on their function in the sentence. Though there are exceptions, pronouns that appear at the beginning of the sentence generally are in the nominative case and call for “he,” “she,” “I,” “we,” “they.”

Pronouns at the end (“him,”  “her,” “me,” “us,” “them”) usually are in the objective case. But it also depends on the meaning of the sentence.

Each of the following sentences demonstrates the proper case of the pronoun: “Both he and his wife are concerned”; “The search involved both him and his wife.”

What often confuses people is the introduction of other players into this linguistic epic. Nobody has trouble with, “He gave the car to me,” but when others appear, it’s confusing: “He gave the car to my brother, my sister, my uncle and ...” By this time, we’ve forgotten how we started the sentence and we’re tempted to say, “He gave the car to ... she and I.”

Mistakes in pronouns commonly appear when there’s more than one person referred to. So if you’re unsure whether it should be “Martha and I” or “Martha and me,” just ask yourself which word you’d use by itself.

• • •

A long-time acquaintance, Aurelia Livingston, recently asked me to tackle the lie/lay grammatical issue in this column. Should we say, “I’m going to lay down,” or “I’m going to lie own”? It’s complicated because in addition to the action of placing something down, including oneself, there’s another meaning dealing with honesty: Are you lying to me?

The project of solving lie and lay could be formidable, and I’ll need to do some homework. I promise to address it in a future column.

Too often, we language purists fail to eschew obfuscation: we complicate things when we’re trying to clarify. I suspect that just might have happened when I phoned Martha Johnsen to provide my take on the “he/him and his wife” issue.

English is strange. We can utter a mostly incorrect sentence such as, “Me buy three cow yesterday.” Even when the case (I, me), the tense (buy, bought) and number (cow, cows) are incorrect, people still understand us.

Well, most languages have case, gender, tense, number, and much more. They lead to precision, but because of the many exceptions, especially in English, learning often is difficult.

So, me now ends this subjects (unless someone be interested in buying three cow).

• • •

“I’m sorry, sir, but we aren’t allowed to do that.”

Do what? It’s not as if I’m asking officials to let 76 of my primos from Ciudad Juarez into the U.S. and be placed in front of the line.

What that store manager wasn’t allowed to do might seem trivial, even petty, but I was nevertheless surprised at the man’s answer.

Let me explain:

My downfall is in liking things a little bit but not a lot. I craved a fish fillet sandwich at a new fast-food eatery in town and asked for the tartar sauce “on the side.” (I would have explained that “I want to spread the sauce on myself,” but the help might have thought I’d look silly wearing a tartar fedora).

Dutifully, the server took my order, but as I was pouring my drink, she approached me and said they could either omit the sauce or place it on the sandwich, but they weren’t allowed to place it in a little cup, on the side. I explained that just two days earlier I’d asked for the same thing and received the tartar in a tiny cup.

But this time it was different. I asked for a refund, as I like tartar sauce just enough to have a tiny portion served, unlike the huge glop that usually accompanies such an order.

The request for a refund was more trouble than I had expected. It took three workers to perform the deed, one to unlock the register, another to have me sign some important documents, with signature, phone and address; and a third person, I guess, just for moral support.

Strange that one day they “do it all for you,” but the next day they’re not allowed to. I wonder whether someone can explain why customers must take either all or none of that sauce.

Last week’s experience somehow reminded me of that unforgettable diner scene in “Easy Rider,” in which Jack Nicholson needed to jump through several culinary hoops just to get toast.    

• • •

Last year, this column got quite a bit of reaction to an item in which we asked readers to translate and otherwise simplify certain common expressions couched in eloquent terms. A couple were:

“Scintillate, scintillate, asteroid exiguous,” for “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” and, “Members of an avian species of identical plumage congregate,” for “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Here are a few more. Your responses and additional submissions are welcome.

1. The more amplitudinous the mass, the more intense is the contact upon declension.

2. The inquisitorial rummaging of the grimalkin culminated in its extermination.

3. Even though a multiplicity may be convened, only an exiguous amount will survive the election.

And as I explained to a disappointed group of kids at my grandchild’s birthday party, after passing out Popsicles, with varying degrees of hardness: Many are cold but few are frozen.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.