“to the best of me ability”

Not Microsoft Word this time, but a similar spelling/grammar checker. I typed “to the best of my ability” and it blue-underlined my, suggesting me: “to the best of me ability”. No, no, no. Certainly not in formal writing (though I note that Pages for Mac and WordPress don’t question me ability (or, less surprisingly, my ability). Just maybe in very informal, non-standard speech, by some people. 

I can find very little information about this usage, probably because it is so informal. This inconclusive ELL Stack Exchange discussion is the only one so far. It’s probably a variant pronunciation of my rather than actually me. People who say to the best of me ability don’t say to the best of you/he/she/it/us/they ability instead of your/his/her/its/our/their ability (the only possible pronunciation is ya ability). Compare I’ll do my best, I’ll do m’best and I’ll do me best with to the best of my ability, *to the best of m’ability and ?to the best of me ability. Note also that me in this usage can’t be stressed: Me car’s been stolen! v Not your car, me car!

All of Google Ngrams’ results for me *_NOUN are from the bigger construction V me N; for example, me something from tell/give/show/teach me something.

I wouldn’t be able to program a spelling/grammar check, so maybe I shouldn’t criticise, but I ever did, I wouldn’t question my N (unless is was part of a V me something construction).


between you and I

Several weeks ago at the gym I heard a song which begins:

There’s a thousand miles between you and I. 

Two years ago (to the day, coincidentally), I posted about the usage of the equivalent of you and I/me as subject, direct object and object of a preposition, so I wasn’t going to post just about that. (I seem to remember that the next song correctly had you and me after a verb or preposition.)

Yesterday I posted about the song Yesterday, and Batchman, who has been my number 1 commenter recently, said, among other things:

In general, using pop songs to illustrate grammar treads on risky ground. Think about all the songs with some variant of “for you and I” in them.

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its – part 2

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’d found an example of its being used as an independent genitive pronoun, something like “I ate my food and the cat ate its”. I didn’t bookmark the page, so had to lightly skim, moderately skim and finally read the book again to find it. This was not helped by the fact that I’d mis-remembered the context, and it didn’t involve the cat at all.

The novel An equal music by Vikram Seth is narrated by the second violinist in a professional string quartet in London. He plays an authentic classic Italian violin loaned to him by an old women in his hometown, but knows he must return it to her family when she dies. At one point he says to one of his colleagues: 

I’ve spent more time with it than with any living soul, but, well, it’s still not mine. And I’m not its. (emphasis added)

Despite, or perhaps because of, one instance in one published novel, I’m not sure that its used in this way is grammatical. I’ve always omitted it from my grammar summaries, but the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language includes it without comment. Does one instance of one particular construction mean that something is grammatical without question? I can easily write a sentence which is unquestionably.


1a) I ate my food and you ate your food. 1b) I ate my food and you ate yours. 
2a) I ate my food and the cat ate its food. 2b) I ate my food and the cat ate its.

No-one ever specifically tells native-speaker children that sentences like 1a) and 2a) are correct but awkward, that sentences like 1b) are correct and natural and that sentences like 2b) are impossible. (I figured this out myself when creating grammar summary sheets.) Why is 2b) impossible? Your food and yours, our food and ours, her food and hers and even his food and his are all interchangeable here, but its food and its aren’t. It isn’t simply that native-speaker children never encounter sentences like this. Native-speaker children are capable of making an almost infinite number of sentences they have never encountered (and most delight in doing so).

Quite recently I actually encountered a sentence like 2b) in a published novel by an established author. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the page, so I’ll have to re-read or at least skim the part that I’ve read in order to find it.  

Svmer iʃ icumen in

Some people decry any change to language as the first step on a slippery slope which will end with us communicating in incoherent grunts. But language has always changed, and always will. We can easily test this in English by looking at written sources across more than a thousand years. My example for this post doesn’t date that far back, merely approximately 750 years.

One of the choirs I sing in is presenting a concert based on the theme of summer. One item is the old song Sumer is icumen in, which dates from before 1264, which is when the manuscript it is preserved in was copied. It is recognisable as English, but obviously a lot has changed since then. The original words are: 

Svmer iʃ icumen in
Lhude ʃing cuccu
Groweþ ʃed and bloweþ med
and ʃpringþ þe wde nu

Sing cuccu
Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc ʃterteþ bucke uerteþ
murie ʃing cuccu

Cuccu cuccu
Wel ʃingeʃ þu cuccu
ne ʃwik þu nauer nu

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You should join his class.

I took some of a colleague’s classes while she was overseas. A student from that class is now coming to mine. She said she likes my teaching. She said she told her brother about me, and:

[1] He said you should join his class.

I was confused. Where is his class and why should I join it? I asked her something along those lines, and she said either:

[2] He said, “You should join his class”.


[3] He said I should join your class.

One of the rules of changing direct quotations into indirect ones is pronoun changes, especially I and you. Another is that direct quotations are usually indicated in speech by a slight pause before the quoted words. She hadn’t paused, or hadn’t paused long enough. 

Interpreting [1] as an indirect quotation, as I did, gives:

[1’] “He [brother] said you [teacher] should join his [brother’s] class”. 

This is the equivalent of:

[4] He said, “He should join my class”.

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Who’s eating whose pizza?

Who’s eating whose pizza?
Someone’s eating someone’s pizza. (or her/his/their)
My cousin’s eating my cousin’s pizza. (or her/his)
Alex’s eating Alex’s pizza. (or her/his)
I’m eating my pizza.
You’re eating your pizza.
She’s eating her pizza.
He’s eating his pizza.
It’s eating its pizza.
We’re eating our pizza.
They’re eating their pizza.

Who’s and whose, you’re and your, it’s and its and they’re and their (and there) are some of the most easily confused pairs (and trio) of words in English, and dominate examples and discussions of ‘grammar fail’ on the internet. It is easy, tempting and, for some people, irresistible to say “Gotcha” and cast aspersions on the writer’s intelligence and/or education, but language is never pure and rarely simple, so it is worth taking the time to consider all the issues.

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You and I

The grammar point in the textbook was ‘future forms’ (strictly speaking, English doesn’t have a ‘future tense’), the section was be going to V, and the prompt was David and I ________ a movie. Many students saw I and wrote David and I am going to see/watch a movie. But David and I functions as we, so the sentence must be David and I (=we) are going to see/watch a movie.

One student asked “Should that be David and me are going to see/watch a movie?”. I’m aware of variation within English, but I had to be standard and say “No, David is going to watch a movie and I am going to watch a movie, so David and I are going to watch a movie”. I are sounds wrong even in that context, but so does me are.

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They are the Doctor

One of the most vehemently contested issues in modern English grammar and usage is ‘singular they’, specifically its use to refer to a person of known gender, or to someone who has chosen not to identify as a specific gender.

Over lunch, I was browsing through the Wikipedia article on Doctor Who. My eye was caught by the sentence ‘The Doctor often finds events that pique their curiosity’. Since late last year, when Jodie Whittaker took over the role, it is impossible to refer to the Doctor as he, and it was always impossible to refer to him, ummm, them as it.

The Wikipedia writer(s) use(s) they once again:

All that was known about the character in the programme’s early days was that they were an eccentric alien traveller of great intelligence

(even though in the program’s early days the Doctor was definitely he).

Alongside their in the usual plural sense:

There have been instances of actors returning at later dates to reprise the role of their specific Doctor.

there is another use of their the singular sense:

The Doctor has gained numerous reoccurring enemies during their travels.

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