Between You, I and the Gatepost

The use of I in coordination, both as object and following a preposition, arouses much passion. I’m thinking of cases such as between you and I and They invited my wife and I. I mentioned its use by David Miliband in a previous post. Perhaps the first thing to say about it is that those who regard the construction as an abomination of modern times are suffering from the Recency Illusion. One of the earliest instances of it recorded in the OED is the following (first brought to my attention by Peter Harvey’s post) from ‘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.’

It is dramatic dialogue, and the words are Bassanio’s rather than Shakespeare’s. In fact, they’re not even Bassanio’s, because they’re in a letter he has received, but the language is otherwise unexceptionable. There is nothing here to suggest that Shakespeare was trying to make a point about the character of the writer of the letter. Still, let us suppose that such a construction was not what the best people were using at the time. The mere fact that Shakespeare reproduces it can only mean that it had some currency in at least the colloquial language of his contemporaries.

We cannot, of course, argue that, because a usage is found hundreds of years ago, we are justified in using it today. However, the OED has citations for these constructions from every century from the sixteenth to the twentieth. There is thus good evidence of continuity in its use from Shakespeare onwards. The OED, it is true, does comment that ‘it has been considered ungrammatical since the 18th cent.’, but the OED, as is its practice, steers clear of saying that it is ungrammatical and fails to tell us who considers it so.

Inflections in general, and those of pronouns in particular, have been subject to erosion over many centuries. For personal pronouns alone, Old English had inflections for four cases, and singular, dual and plural numbers. No one, I imagine, suggests we return to that. The variation that has been apparent for several centuries in the use of the first person singular pronoun seems to be part of the process of erosion. Constructions like between you and me and between you and I and They invited my wife and me and They invited my wife and I will co-exist until one, quite possibly the second in each case, becomes universal. After that me could disappear altogether from Standard English, surviving only in nonstandard dialect forms such as Me and the wife was down the pub last night. There seem to be similar developments in other persons of the pronoun. Language Log has recorded examples such as in I’ll be voting for he and for Vice President Joe Biden next month, and I recently saw familiar to all we cat lovers.

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