The Negative Canon: [Noun Phrase] and ‘I’/‘Me’

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

The English personal pronouns are I/me, you/you, he/him, she/ her, it/it, we/us and they/them. The first form of each pair is, in traditional terminology, in the nominative case, and the second is in the accusative case, where the nominative case is used for the subject of a clause and the accusative case is used for the object of a clause and following a preposition. This means that we say, at least in Standard English, She saw him and He saw her rather than *Her saw he or *Him saw she, and He came towards me rather than *He came towards I.

So far, so clear. However, variation can occur when the first person (I/me) is coordinated with a noun or with another pronoun, as in:

(1) They invited my wife and [I/me] to lunch.

and

(2) There’s a great deal in common between you and [I/me].

I imagine the majority of those who read this will say that what happens when I/me occurs alone must also apply in other circumstances too. We wouldn’t say They invited I, so we can’t say They invited my wife and I. We wouldn’t follow a preposition with I, so we can’t follow a preposition with <…> and I. This argument is put forward by both Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ and R L Trask in ‘Mind the Gaffe’. Blamires cites this example from the former British Prime Minister John Major, commenting that we may see from it ‘how deeply this error has corrupted us’:

It may be that many people would like to invent divisions between he and I, but there are none.

I have myself heard David Miliband, a former British Foreign Secretary and the brother of the Leader of the Labour Party say on BBC radio:

. . . invite Michael Howard and I . .

Trask makes the point about not using I in those contexts where it occurs alone and continues:

The presence of that ‘and’ seems to throw many writers into a panic, a panic which inevitably leads to the insertion of an impossible ‘I’ where only ‘me’ is possible.

However, the OED records I ‘as object of a verb or preposition’ and notes that it is:

Used for the objective case after a verb or preposition when separated from the governing word by other words (esp. in coordinate constructions with another pronoun and and).This has been common at various times (especially towards the end of the 16th and in the 17th century, and from the mid 20th century onwards); it has been considered ungrammatical since the 18th century.

There you are, those 18th century grammarians again. Hypercorrection is the usual explanation, but, as Peter Harvey has commented:

If the usage was ‘very frequent’ 400 years ago, hypercorrection cannot really be the whole reason for its use nowadays.

It could even be argued that and me rather than and I is itself a form of hypercorrection.

The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ (p. 9) challenge the view that what happens when a pronoun occurs in isolation must determine what happens when it has company:

But why should we simply assume that the grammatical rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and a non-coordinated pronoun?

They cite another example of where the rules make just such a differentiation. We can say I don’t know if you’re eligible, but we can’t say I don’t know if she and you’re eligible. They comment that the sequence you are can be reduced to you’re in the first sentence, where you is subject, but not in the second where the subject has the form of a coordination of pronouns.

This shows us not only that a rule of English could apply differently to pronouns and coordinated pronouns, but that one rule actually does . . .The argument from analogy is illegitimate.

Elsewhere they write that constructions such as (1) are (my emphasis):

. . . used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community; it should therefore be regarded as a variant Standard English form.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) records Henry Sweet’s suggestion in his ‘New English Grammar’ of 1892 that you and I occurs so frequently that it comes to be seen as an invariable group in all contexts. This comes close to Chomsky,mentioned later in the MWDEU article, when he claimed that :

. . . [‘between’]can assign the objective case agreement only to the whole compound, which cannot be declined, and the individual words in the phrase are free to be nominative or objective or even be reflexives.

The preference for between you and me over between you and I, at least, seems strong, as shown by the following figures:

British National Corpus Corpus of Contemporary American English
Between you and me 43 183
Between you and I 2 17

Still, the preference is much less marked when the search is narrowed to spoken English, and the two examples of between you and I in the British National Corpus occur in sentences which must be considered as Standard English. The first is from a radio programme:

But at a fundamental level there’s really little difference between you and I struggling to count on our fingers, and the most modern and sophisticated piece of computing wizardry.

The second is from a piece of dialogue in a Mills and Boon novel:

I felt as if I knew you, and you knew me — almost from the beginning of time. It was as if, between you and I, the ordinary processes of — what shall I call it… courtship? — were totally superfluous.

If you think a citation from a Mills and Boon novel too down-market to count, Shakespeare had Bassanio say in ‘The Merchant of Venice’:

Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death.

We can take from all of this that both you and me and you and I in object position and following a preposition, particularly between, occur in the speech of speakers of Standard English, but that it might be unwise to use the latter variant in formal prose. As Pam Peters very sensibly comments in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

The vacillation over ‘me/I’ is symptomatic of shifting case relations among pronouns generally . . . But because between you and I seems to have become a shibboleth it’s to be avoided in writing. In fact a confidential between you and I is unlikely to occur to anyone writing a formal document, because of the impersonal nature of the style that goes with it.

MWDEU comes to a similar conclusion:

You are probably safe in retaining ‘between you and I’ in your casual speech, if it exists there already, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. But you had better avoid it in essays and other works of a discursive nature.

We could say the same about the constructions in sentences (1) and (4). More adventurous writers might like to use and I, but they must be prepared to have attention paid to the grammar of their writing at the expense of its content. There is, however, no reason to chastise its use in speech, or even in speeches. As is often the case, two forms exist side by side until one ousts the other. As Jean Aitchison once wrote:

Language lamenters mostly haven’t understood how language works. In language change, new variants grow up alongside existing ones, often as stylistic alternatives.

Differences between the forms of pronouns are less distinct than they once were (look at who and whom). That is only natural. Just as the three numbers, four cases and, in the third person, the three genders, of the Old English personal pronouns have eroded to what we have now, our present system seems to be in the process of reducing further.

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8 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

8 responses to “The Negative Canon: [Noun Phrase] and ‘I’/‘Me’

  1. Ow! My ears hurt when I hear “between you and I”, for example, but my soul hurts when it slips from my lips! I enjoy your blog for its depth and the likelihood I will learn about something I missed in my schoolboy days.

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    • Thank you. We’re all entitled to have our various body and more ethereal parts hurt if we wish. I simply try to say what is and what is not the case.

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  2. Jamie

    There is an interesting analysis of some of the factors affecting the choice of case in various forms of coordination here: http://ling.umd.edu/~tgrano/uht.pdf

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  3. While it’s vaguely possible that hypercorrection accounts for “between you and I” or “Give Al and I a chance”, it can’t play a role in “me and you need to get to work”. Something else is going on with pronouns – and why not? They’re deeply weird when compared to nouns. (Also, since we get by not declining nouns and some pronouns, it can’t be confusing to anyone to hear “between you and I”, a big part of why it flourishes.)

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    • Thank you both. I had considered covering the use of ‘me’ as subject in coordination as well, but it would have made for an even longer post. Commenting on my post on Pronominal Confusion, Warsaw Will suggested that forms such as ‘me and him’ as subject could be regarded as standard but informal, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

      In terms of ideational meaning, the difference between nominative and accusative forms makes little difference, and I think we will eventually see either one replacing the other, or both being possible in either subject or object position with no stigma attached. How long that will take is a matter of speculation.

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  4. Just a small point. While I agree with your comments, I feel that one example that you give could be parsed as:

    But at a fundamental level there’s really little difference between:
    a) you and I struggling to count on our fingers, and
    b) the most modern and sophisticated piece of computing wizardry.

    where you and I is the subject of struggling

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    • You’re right, Peter, and it’s something that crossed my mind as I was posting it. ‘Between’ does indeed mean between (a) and (b), and not between ‘you and I’.

      It raises in turn the question of whether an accusative pronoun before an ‘-ing’ verb is grammatical: (?) ‘between you and me struggling to count on our fingers, and . . . ’ I dare say there are those who would like to see ‘between your and my struggling . . .’ But that’s a topic for another post.

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  5. I now see that Ben Yagoda had a piece on this in ‘Lingua Franca’ last year.

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