Pronominal Confusion

We are all, I am sure, familiar with the strong emotions that constructions like between you and I can arouse. Uncertainty over the use of personal pronouns is in part a consequence of the loss of most pronominal inflections that started something like 1000 years ago. Before then, personal pronouns had four cases and three numbers (singular, dual and plural).

I mention this because in an interview on the BBC’s programme ‘Today’ this morning, a man held on police bail began his account with Me and my wife was arrested in September 2010. This is clearly a nonstandard clause. However, in another news item, the reporter Gary O’Donoghue said You’re right. Him and Theresa May and others have been making this argument. Mr O’Donoghue was equally clearly speaking Standard English. This is perhaps just a hint that the day will surely come when personal pronouns either have only one form for each person, or the remaining forms will be used interchangeably without censure.

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25 Comments

Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language

25 responses to “Pronominal Confusion

  1. I wouldn’t call either one of them Standard English. The first one has the wrong number on the verb, but an object pronoun in the subject slot, even as part of the conjunction, goes too far for me (whereas a subject pronoun in the object slots does not).

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    • markonsea

      Chalk up my vote for the converse!

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      • I take it you mean you don’t like seeing ‘I’ as part of a coordinated object, markonsea. Well, we’re all entitled to dislike whatever we choose, but there’s no denying that it exists. I cover the point briefly here.

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        • markonsea

          I accept that they both exist. I just find myself uncomprehending as to how John Cowan can approach it with equianimity, especially as he takes exception to a similar phenomenon in subject position.

          (“Right, you two: you’ve had your go. It’s Bill and me’s turn now!”)

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    • Sorry, but me and most of my mates would disagree with you. Yes, it’s pretty informal, especially for a news broadcast, but not necessarily non-standard (especially when the object pronoun in the subject slot is ‘me’).

      A couple of things interest me:
      1. ‘Me and him are going shopping’ seems to be accepted as more natural than ‘Him and me are going shopping’
      2. With the more formal ‘David and I are going to the pub’, the other person invariably comes first, while with “Me and Dave are off for a quick pint”, the converse is true.
      It seems to me that although many of us are happy to be ‘me first’ in informal situations, we really don’t like ‘me’ second in subject position.

      http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/staff/kerswill/pkpubs/Kerswill2006RPStandardEnglish.pdf

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      • The puzzle for me was to hear ‘him’ in subject position in a piece of discourse which was otherwise in Standard English. Even, as here, in coordination, it is at best unusual. My point in mentioning it was to say that it may become less so.

        I agree that where ‘me’ occurs as part of a coordinated subject in nonstandard dialects, it normally comes first, as in ‘Me and my wife was arrested’. The sociolinguists can perhaps tell us why, but perhaps you explain in your paper, which I haven’t yet read.

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        • I agree with you about “him” being unusual. I would suggest, though, that “me” also comes first in what I would call informal standard (British) English – “Me and the others are off to the pub if you fancy a pint.” – this is certainly used by people who otherwise speak Standard English.

          I wish it was my paper, but I’m just a humble EFL teacher, I’m afraid.

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  2. I meant that the rest of his report was unmistakably in Standard English, whereas the speech of the first person I mentioned was not. The use of ‘him’ in subject position was the only grammatically remarkable feature of O’Donoghue’s report. We could, I suppose, simply say that it was an error which he would readily acknowledge if it was pointed out to him, but we’re entitled to ask why an experienced reporter would make such an error in the first place.

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  3. I think it’s very likely that O’Donohuge’s usage was influenced by hearing the man he was interviewing say it. This would be especially likely if O’Donohuge’s on-air English is not his native version. Solidarity of this type is most often noted, I believe, with accents, but syntax is also a possible manifestation.

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  4. Oh, look at that. I typed O’Donohuge twice because I was looking at the comment above mine instead of the original post!

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    • That could certainly be a plausible explanation in some circumstances, but the interviewer gave him no such prompt. Here’s my transcription of the question and answer:

      INTERVIEWER: There’s a bit of coalition politics going on here, isn’t there, because the right-wing ministers, Philip Hammond, Owen Patterson, are saying, don’t cut our department, cut welfare, knowing full well that the Lib Dems have said no more cuts in welfare.

      O’DONOGHUE: Yeh, I mean Philip Hammond has had some success in the sense that, um, things like procurement are going to be protected, but you’re right, him and Theresa May and others have been making this argument.

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      • It seems much more standard to me if we interpret it as a subordinate clause, you’re right [that] him and Teresa May etc., than as a main clause.

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        • I don’t see it as currently being standard myself, John, but as an indication that it might one day become so. For now, a subordinate clause requires ‘he’ as subject just as much as a main clause does.

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  5. Pingback: More on Pronouns | Caxton

  6. Yale Wale

    I love this site. I got to knw about you from Bad Linguistics. Could you please move the articles from the defunct Realgrammar.posterous here? I’ve been there but cant read any of them, and I’d like to read some. They proved interesting and arresting topics indeed. Thamks.

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  7. I suspect the line between nonstandard and informal standard is rather fuzzy, Will. Certainly, if ‘Me and the others are off to the pub’ is nonstandard, it’s hard to say what the standard equivalent might be. A topic for a post one of these days, perhaps.

    Sorry about the confusion over the paper. I’ve now read it, and it was worth having anyway.

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    • Alon

      if ‘Me and the others are off to the pub’ is nonstandard, it’s hard to say what the standard equivalent might be

      I think that’s exactly the point, Barrie, because Will is arguing that he doesn’t find O’Donoghue’s utterance ungrammatical or nonstandard. Given that “me and X” is the normal form for coordinate subjects in colloquial spoken English, analogous forms like “him and X” are likely to become more prevalent.

      I’d go for the nominative form myself, but then I’m an L2 speaker.

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      • I agree accusative case pronouns in subject position are likely to become more prevalent – that indeed was the point of my post – and I agree that even now they are frequently used in informal speech, but I wouldn’t say such use was standard. I can’t imagine seeing it in formal writing, and I can’t imagine hearing it other than colloquially. O’Donoghue’s use struck me as an aberration.

        As Huddleston and Pullum state quite clearly in ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ , a sentence like Kim and me saw the accident is found ‘in the speech of speakers of dialects that have a different rule for case inflection of pronouns: they use the accusative forms (me, him, her, us, them) whenever the pronoun is coordinated. Standard English does not.’

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  8. I [Northrop Frye] often revert to a little scene that made a considerable impression on me once: in a grocery store, where the clerk was showing me two things much alike, he remarked “It doesn’t make any difference”, then looked me full in the face and instantly corrected himself to “It don’t make no difference.” This second form was an improvement on the first, having a higher degree of what literary critics call texture. It meant (a) it doesn’t make any difference (b) you look to me like a schoolteacher, and nobody’s going to catch me talking like one of them. If he said, “It don’t make no difference”, it was not because he did not know the accepted form, but because he did know it. His speech was not ungrammatical; it was anti-grammatical.”

    —”The Well-Tempered Critic (II)” in The Educated Imagination (1964)

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  9. (b) sounds the more likely explanation. He felt uncomfortable using a dialect that was not his own.

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