THE BLOG
08/24/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Oct 23, 2014

Getting Along Better with Others

Would you like to get along better with your husband or wife, or with you children, especially your teenager? Or, if you are a teenager, would you like getting along better with your parents or with a teacher in high school or college? Or, if you are a teacher, are you making mistakes that lead students to feel put upon? Or, at work, do you want to get along better with your boss, or do higher-ups in the company want to get along better with the people working under their supervision? And on the list goes: let your imagination complete the list for you.

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you need to know about a very common error in grammar that so many of us make when we are talking with others--a very simple error that is easy to correct. I am talking about whether to use "to" or "with."

So frequently I hear someone say, "I want to talk to you." This is all right if you really mean that you want to talk to the person and do not want the person to talk with you. In other words, if you want it to be a one-sided conversation, where you talk and the other person listens, it is appropriate to say, "I want to talk to you."

If, on the other hand, you want to have a discussion with another person--if you want to give the other person the opportunity of talking as well as listening--you should say, "I want to talk with you." That's an easy fix, isn't it?

A husband or wife sends a definite advance message to his/her spouse if he/she says, "I want to talk to you." A different advance message is sent by saying, "I want to talk with you." And which advance message is sent can help create a helpful or inflammatory atmosphere for the conversation.

How you deal with your child or teenager can also be hindered or helped by your using either "to" or "with." How well a coach communicates with his/her team depends on using "to" and "with" appropriately.

How a supervisor uses "to" or "with" will impact the "boss-worker" relationship. How a CEO uses "to" and "with" in addressing the board of directors will affect their relationships.

In large colleges and universities it is common to have large lecture classes, where a senior faculty members "lectures" to a large number of students, sometimes as many as a couple of hundred. The large lecture class will be broken up into small groups led by a graduate teaching assistant. It is appropriate for the faculty member lecturing to the large group to say, "I want to talk to you about such and such a subject." He or she does not expect to answer questions or enter into a dialogue with the students in the large lecture class. The teaching assistant, on the other hand, wants to enter into a dialogue with the students, to pose questions to the students and to discuss the questions the students have for him/her. It is appropriate for the teaching assistant to say, "I want to talk with you about . . ."; it would be entirely inappropriate for the teaching assistant to say, "I want to talk to you about . . ."

The other day I heard a newscaster from one of the national TV networks describing his unsuccessful attempts to interview people who had supposedly observed the much-talked-about shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. He talked at length about his inability to find people who would agree to his talking "to" them. Perhaps he would have had more success by requesting to talk "with" the people instead of "to" them.

I can guarantee that if you think about whether to use "to" or "with" and put into practice actually saying what you mean, it will make a big difference in how you get along with other people. And the tone of voice used in saying "to" or "with" also makes a big difference.

The correct usage of "to" and "with" is a very good example of how using grammar properly can make a difference in both your personal and professional relationships. In other words, studying grammar is not just an academic exercise; the use of proper grammar has value in our everyday lives. And brushing up on grammar is not nearly as difficult as many people assume.

When I wrote The Big Ten of Grammar, Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors, I did not consider the problem of using "to" or "with" as one of the ten most frequent grammatical errors. I still don't! But it certainly comes in close behind. And in personal and professional relationships, using "to" and "with" belongs very near the top.