May 29, 2005

Case nuances

case My sophomore seminar students have weekly assignments to collect real-life examples relevant to some point of usage in English and to discuss their significance.  Some of these examples are surprising and thought-provoking.  Here are three from the last (both most recent and final) assignment, on pronoun case, illustrating nuances in the choice between nominative and accusative case.

First, what looks like a simple example of non-standard accusative case in a coordinate subject:
    (1)  Me and Paco are best friends.
Ah, but things shift when I tell you that Paco is a chihuahua.  Suddenly, (1) doesn't sound so bad any more, and its standard version --
    (2)  Paco and I are best friends.
no longer sounds so good; (2) humanizes Paco, inappropriately to my mind.  (Serious dog-lovers might feel otherwise.)  And to the minds of others I've consulted.

Faced with the choice between (1) and (2) in a moderately formal setting, I'd reject them both and go for something like Paco's my best friend.

Second, an example of non-standard nominative case in a coordinate object:
    (3)  Rachel wants you and I to...
Google turns up over 500 examples of "wants you and I to" (many of them in religious material, for some reason), and over 700 for "want you and I to":

The Star wants you and I to register to access stories on the site.

He wants you and I to be evangelists, to help others to go to Heaven, with our word and our deeds, with our life!

Now, many people who reject things like
    (4)  Rachel likes you and I.
find examples like (3) considerably better -- not fully acceptable, but considerably better.  I share this judgment.

The effect seems to have something to do the fact that the coordinate NP is interpreted as the subject of the VP that follows it.  It also seems to be specific to the verb want; hits for other verbs are less than 10% of those for want: raw hit numbers of 48 for "expects", 34 for "forces", 33 for "needs", 12 for "tells", 10 for "asks", and 0 for "likes".  (These are almost all religious in content.)  In any case, the phenomenon deserves some further exploration.

Third, accusative us (rather than we) as a determiner in a subject NP:
    (5)  All us old folk are going to bed now.
The usual examples of personal pronouns as determiners are things like
    (6)  We/Us old folk are going to bed now.
in which we is labeled as the norm, with "very colloquial and dialectal varieties having accusative us" (Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p. 459).  My own judgments are that we in (6) is hyper-formal, while us is decidedly informal, so that neither variant is comfortable for me in most formal contexts.  In (5), on the other hand, we strikes me (and a fair number of others) as simply unacceptable:
    (7)  ??All we old folk are going to bed now.

The subject NPs in (5) and (7) have an instance of "predeterminer" all -- a use of all in which it combines with a full NP (that is definite and plural), in which use it alternates with a construction having an explicit partitive in of.  The explicit partitive has accusative objects of of, of course:
    (8)  All of us/*we old folk are going to bed soon.
My hypothesis is that the contrast between (5) and (7) reflects the contrast within (8).  (For what it's worth, the contrast between (5) and (7) is even starker for me when the predeterminer is both rather than all.)

And that's the top of the crop for this week.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 29, 2005 02:44 PM