August 07, 2005

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, specifically to a piece entitled "Are 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 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 complex, but 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 impressions are 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, p. 428) about "the recent colloquial pattern I'm going home and eat", what  Laura Staum has been investigating 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 Illusion.

Here at Stanford we have a group working on innovative uses of all, 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 quotative all 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 is very low (quotative like is 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 corpora.

Of course, sometimes your off-the-cuff frequency estimates are right.  Quotative like really IS incredibly common for some speakers.  Double is -- "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 are unreliable.

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.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 7, 2005 02:48 PM