Just between Dr. Language and I
Stanford student Tommy Grano's been looking at pronoun case usage in
English, especially in coordination. This has led him to the "Dr.
Language" column on yourdictionary.com, specifically to a piece
you and I you and me?"
The piece retails the standard hypercorrection story for "between you
and I" and similar expressions, and in addition locates this
hypercorrection as quite recent -- so recent that it could be nipped in
the bud by quick action. Possibly, Dr. Language got this idea
from James Cochrane's annoying Between
You and I
; on p. 14, Cochrane says: "This oddity, which seems to
have emerged only in the last twenty or so years, presumably arises
from a feeling of discomfort about using the word me
, a sense that it is somehow
impolite or 'uneducated.' "
Well, they're both wrong, pretty spectacularly, though Dr. Language's
discussion has some amusement value. If only they'd thought to
consult some standard sources or look at some facts, they might not
have fallen into error and spread this error to their readers.
Instead, they depend entirely on their subjective impressions about the
facts of English usage -- impressions that are very likely to be skewed
in systematic ways.
From Dr. Language's column:
... The result is that prescriptive
grammar books used in U.S. schools for years have taught children to
avoid constructions like "me and X" in favor of "X and I," where "X"
represents any other noun or pronoun referring to a human being. They
seldom make clear that this rule applies only in the Subject position.
The critical grammatical rule, that "I" appears only in the Subject
while "me" must be used in all Object positions gets lost in the
concern for etiquette.
Young people in the U. S. have been so exposed to this oversimplified
explanation of the "me-and-you" problem, that about 20 years ago U.S.
English-speakers began switching "me and X" to "X and I" everywhere the
phrase occurs -- in Subject and Object positions. When actors and others
on TV and radio began speaking with this error, it spread like wildfire.
However, since yourDictionary.com has caught this speech error in its
early stages, it is possible to stop its spread. The prescription is
simple: first, we must all stop making the error. Second, we must make
sure that when we, as teachers and parents, correct "me-and-you"
problem [sic], we keep in mind that it is a dual error: the
grammatical error of using the Object form of "I" in the Subject
position and a point of etiquette that is at best optional. It is
crucial that everyone understands that changing the "me" to "I" is
restricted to Subject position.
... Keep the following mnemonic sentence in mind: "I" am the Subject
but the Object is "me." There are no exceptions. Join yourDictionary in
the fight to nip this linguistic virus in the bud!
Now for my rant. Why do people (like Cochrane and Dr. Language)
who propose to offer authoritative advice to educated people not use
standard sources of information? ("You could look it up", as
Casey Stengel is reported to have said, with reference to his claim
that most people his age were dead.) A quick trip to the OED
would show a longer and more complicated history, and the MWDEU entry
on "between you and I" would be a real eye-opener. The facts look
it's safe to say that the rise of "between you and I" in Late Modern
English goes back at least 150 or 160 years, not 20; earlier uses go
back about 400 years. There's no way it can be blamed on modern
education, as John Simon suggested in 1980 (see MWDEU), unless Simon
was just playing with different senses of "modern".
In any case, we have here another instance of the Recency Illusion, the
belief that things YOU
have noticed only recently are
in fact recent. This is a selective attention effect. Your
simply not to be trusted; you have to check the facts. Again and
again -- retro not
, double is
, speaker-oriented hopefully
, split infinitives, etc.
-- the phenomena turn out to have been
around, with some frequency, for very much longer than you think.
It's not just Kids These Days.
Professional linguists can be as subject to the Recency Illusion as
anyone else. Charles Hockett wrote in 1958 (A Course in Modern Linguistics
428) about "the recent colloquial pattern I'm going home and eat
Laura Staum has
under the name (due to me) the GoToGo
construction. Here's an example I overheard in a Palo Alto
restaurant 8/6/05: "I'm goin' out there and sleep in the tent."
But Hockett's belief that the construction was recent in 1958 is just
wrong; David Denison, at Manchester, has collected examples from
roughly 30 years before that.
Another selective attention effect, which tends to accompany the
Recency Illusion, is the Frequency Illusion: once you've noticed a
phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even "all the time".
Your estimates of frequency are likely to be skewed by your noticing
nearly every occurrence that comes past you. People who are
reflective about language -- professional linguists, people who set
themselves up as authorities on language, and ordinary people who are
simply interested in language -- are especially prone to the Frequency
Here at Stanford we have a
group working on innovative uses
, especially the quotative use,
as in the song title "I'm like 'yeah' and she's all 'no'". The
members of the group believed that
was very common
these days in the speech of the young, especially young women in
California, and the undergraduates working on the project reported that
they had friends
who used it "all the time". But in fact, when the undergrads
engage these friends in (lengthy) conversation, tape the conversations,
transcribe them, and then extract occurrences of quotatives, the
frequency of quotative all
very low (quotative like
really really big). There are several interpretations for this
annoying finding, but we're inclined to think that part of it is the
Frequency Illusion on our part.
Nominative coordinate objects are also a lot less frequent than you
might have thought, according to Grano's searches through several types
Of course, sometimes your off-the-cuff frequency estimates are
right. Quotative like
incredibly common for some speakers.
-- "The thing is is
that we've gotta go" -- really IS
incredibly common for
some speakers; I've come across one speaker who appears to use it very
close to categorically, producing an extra form of be
in virtually every place he
could. But the
point is that you actually have to look at the facts; your impressions
People like Dr. Language are just too lazy to look it up in reference
works (so they fall into the Recency Illusion) or to look at the facts
(so they fall into the Frequency Illusion). They just go on
their seat-of-the-pants guesses; don't confuse me with facts. And
so they spread error. And on top of that, some of them make
reputations and actually earn money doing this.
[This is a lightly edited version of a posting to the American Dialect
Society mailing list, 8/7/05.]
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 7, 2005 02:48 PM