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Dave Eggers’ grammar

July 14, 2016

I’m reading Dave Eggers’ novel You Shall Know Our Velocity (great title) and on page 113 was brought up short by the following: “It was ridiculous for Hand and I to be playing like this” (Hand is the name of a character, just to clarify).

What? It was ridiculous for Hand and I..

No, no, no. No. You can’t say for Hand and I, any more than you can say for I. It should be for Hand and me. Just as it should be for me.

This is the kind of mistake known as a hyper-corrective error; people have a vague idea that and I sounds more formal than and me, probably because at school they were corrected for saying things like “Harry and me went to the mall”. So an imperfect notion of a rule forms: that I is in some general sense more correct than me. I remember once trying to disabuse a student of this notion, by explaining that where it would be right to say me alone, then it’s always right to say X and me. But she refused to believe me, arguing that the Queen always says my husband and I in speeches, never my husband and me. And the Queen ought to know, after all. It’s her English…

It’s not at all an uncommon error, even among highly educated people; Bill Clinton did it (“Give Al Gore and I a chance”). Still, I’m surprised at a writer of Dave Eggers’ gifts getting this one wrong. Elsewhere in the book I’ve also noticed that he confuses lay and laid, and sank and sunk. Maybe that’s just supposed to be the voice of the narrator – a guy whose grammar ain’t great – but I don’t think so, because the novel is generally written in beautiful clear balanced complex sentences, with an impressively wide and accurately-deployed vocabulary. It’s a literary novel. Do these tiny mistakes spoil it? Not really; it’s still an enjoyable and stimulating read. Yet these little blips are distractions and the novel would be better without them.

Really, I’m just curious. How is it that a writer as gifted and sensitive to words as Dave Eggers doesn’t automatically know this? I don’t mean, why hasn’t he memorised all the rules of English grammar; I mean, why doesn’t he just know what sounds right? It always puzzles me when writers who are much, much better at writing than me make these unintended grammatical slips, which I’d never make.

A thought: maybe I’d be a better writer if my grammar was worse…?

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