Dear Dr. Linda,

I’m not a retired English teacher, nor do I profess to speak perfect English, but I can’t help noticing how so many kids, and adults as well, speak and write incorrectly, even the most highly educated.

I remember spending hours in school diagramming sentences. I learned and still know when to use “I” as opposed to “me,” when to use “can” as opposed to “may,” when to use “good” as opposed to “well.” These are just three of the grammar mistakes that I hear daily at work and at home, even from my own kids. I don’t know why, but it really bothers me. Is it just me or do others notice this?

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Dear Karen,

Yes, I notice it, too. In fact, I was watching the movie “Baby Boom” not long ago when Dianne Keaton’s character, a Harvard graduate, is asked how she is doing after living for a year in a small town in Vermont. She answers, “Good. I’m doing good.” (She may have been doing good in that small town, but in answer to the question, “How are you?” her answer technically should have been, “Well. I’m doing well.”)

It’s happening all over and not just in the movies. In today’s world, if you ask most people how they feel, they’ll answer, “Good.” If they said, “I’m feeling well, thank you,” some would think they were speaking old English. Even so, we don’t send “Get Good” cards to people who are ill, do we?

Why is this happening? The amount of information and knowledge students are faced with learning has exploded, and things like grammar and music have taken a back seat. Is it still taught? Yes, but not with the same attention. To meet increasing demands on their time, teachers don’t have the luxury of dwelling on when to say “good” vs. “well” or “I” vs. “me.” Or “can” vs. “may.”

Here’s a quick quiz:

1. Please tell Jane and ___ (I or me) when you leave.

2. (Can or May) ___ I have a glass of water?

3. I feel ___? (good or well)

The answer to number one is “me.” The key to which is correct is technically whether the pronoun refers to the subject (I) or object (me) of the sentence. In normal speech, nobody would say, “She’s going to spend the night with I,” or “Me is going to the store.” When in doubt, a good rule of thumb for a sentence like this one is to drop “Jane” and then fill in the blank, e.g., “Please tell __ (I or me) when you leave.”

The rule for “can” and “may” is also pretty straightforward, but you have to stop and think about the meaning of the words. “Can” means you are capable of doing something, whereas “may” in this context means you’re asking permission. In No. 2 above, if you’re asking if it’s OK for you to have a glass of water, you should have answered, “May I have a glass of water?” whereas if you aren’t sure you are capable of swallowing it, you might ask, “Can I have a glass of water?”

The rule for the use of “good” and “well” can be more confusing because the two get used interchangeably a lot. However, “good” is an adjective, usually describing a noun or following a linking verb like “am” or “were” or other forms of the verb “be.” For example: He is a good person. She was good to me. “Well” is almost always an adverb that modifies a verb, except for when it describes a person’s health. Then, it’s an adjective. For example: I did well on my math test, not poorly. She was sick last week, but she feels well today.

Having said all of the above, remember that the English language, especially American English, isn’t set in cement. If it were, we’d still be saying words such as “thou” and “shall” in everyday conversation. New words appear in our dictionaries every day and different forms become acceptable over time. Like it or not, our language is dynamic and ever-evolving. As long as you understand what your kids are saying, no matter which words they choose, correct them if you like, but for the most part, sometimes we have to just relax and go with it.

Be well,

Dr. Linda