December 19, 2006

Does Julia Gillard know subjects from objects?

Australian politician Julia Gillard, deputy leader of the Labour Party, speaking about attitudes toward her and party leader Kevin Rudd, remarked:

We have got a long way to go to ensure that the Australian community knows Kevin and I, trusts Kevin and I and wants us to be the prime minister and deputy prime minister of this country.

Columnist Christopher Pearson commented bitchily in The Australian:

It shows she can't tell the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence; when to use I and me.

The issue of whether this alleged grammar error should have been picked up and criticized, or whether Pearson is just an uptight grammar fascist, will not be discussed here; the comments below this post on an Australian group politics blog discusses them thoroughly (the commenters also consider whether Language Log people are a bunch of ugly chain-whipping mofos who think they know better than everyone else etc. etc.). But I do want to make one epistemological remark: it's remarkable that Pearson thinks the quoted material in red above shows that Gillard "can't tell the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence" when in fact all the evidence supports exactly the opposite conclusion.

To defend his claim, Pearson needs to show Gillard saying things like *Me love you, or *Do you love I?. Cases of that sort would really show she can't tell when to use I and when to use me. But he can't do this.

Pearson must know (he surely should, since I was able to find out immediately) that Ms Gillard uses me as the form of the first person singular pronoun when it is a direct object, because she used both of the following sentences in her first speech to Parliament in 1998:

Australia has offered me opportunities that would have been beyond my parents' understanding...

I have only been able to take up those opportunities because of the excellent state education system which flourished in South Australia...

So that settles that: we have relevant evidence available in a very public source showing that of course she knows the difference between subject and object, and of course she uses the nominative form I for a pronoun subject and the accusative form me for a pronoun object, just like we all do.

Now, I think there may be many people who imagine that in a sentence like The Australian community knows Kevin and I  we have an occurrence of the pronoun I showing up as an object. We certainly do not. We have the pronoun I  showing up as the word following a coordinator in a phrase and I which is the second of two phrases making up the coordination Kevin and I.  It is the coordination that is an object. Being a part of a phrase that serves as an object is not at all the same as being an object. Consider I resent the fact that he lied. The object of resent is a noun phrase, the fact that he lied. Inside it is a pronoun. But that pronoun (he) is a subject. It just happens to be inside an object.

So, clearing that possible confusion away, what does Pearson's quote actually teach us? Two things. First, that when a pronoun follows the coordinator and, Ms Gillard invariably uses the nominative (at least for the first person singular she does). Indeed, that first speech to Parliament confirms it again:

My father John and my mother Moira, who is watching from the gallery today, migrated to this country with my sister Alison and I as assisted passage migrants in 1966.

And the second thing we learn from the Pearson quote is that in the only instance of a pronoun that does not follow and, a first person plural pronoun, it is not the subject of a finite clause, and so Gillard chooses the accusative form: us. This confirms again that (like anyone who can say I love you and Do you love me? and get both of them right) she knows subjects from objects perfectly well.

One hundred percent of the evidence we have is accounted for by the following very simple generalization:

Ms Gillard uses nominative forms for
 (a)   pronouns that are subjects of tensed clauses, and
 (b)   pronouns that follow the coordinator and.
She uses accusative forms for objects, and everywhere else.

Whether we want to regard it as correct or acceptable in Standard English to use the nominative after and is another matter, and much more difficult to adjudicate. We can say that it's very common; huge numbers of Standard English speakers do appear to follow that rule (see pages 9-10 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language for a discussion of this highly controversial point). Shakespeare apparently did (at least, he has one of his characters say between you and I in The Merchant of Venice). But whether people should be following this rule is off the agenda here — like whether Pearson is a stuck-up right-wing snob or whether Gillard is a jumped-up illiterate Welsh immigrant or whether Language Log writers are chain-swinging anti-correctness thugs. Here I'm just making a single point about the use of evidence.

I'm saying it is truly striking that Pearson can get away with saying in Australia's most serious national newspaper that the linguistic evidence reveals "she can't tell the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence; when to use I and me", when in fact the available evidence (including what he quotes) can be shown in a minute to refute that claim completely.

I'm saying I really find it interesting that, when it comes to grammar, people who write for newspapers and magazines feel no need to check their facts or analyses; they just present lofty pronouncements, as Pearson does, and everyone caves.

[I rewrote this a bit on the evening of December 19. Thanks to Linda Seebach and Rob Sears and Christopher Mackay for some feedback that suggested to me I should clarify what I was saying. They may still not agree with me.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 19, 2006 01:32 PM