Pronouns, politeness, and paying attention

There’s been a lot of chatter of late about pronouns. I’m not here to engage in the discourse (that sounds so lofty, don’t it?) about the singular they as applied to a specific individual who uses it to refer to themself. To be sure, that is a topic of great interest, and it generates discussion, but that’s not why I’m here right now.

My topic at this moment is twofold: Why does one need to pay attention when examples are provided in a discussion? And what is the best way to steer that discussion in another direction, if that is your desire?

I semi-regularly beg people to stop hypercorrecting because they had the fear of [insert deity of choice here] put into them in elementary school by some teacher or other (mine was Mrs. Dentler) that when one is speaking of oneself and another person or persons, one always puts oneself last. That is, one always is to say “James and I are going to dinner” and never “I and James are going to dinner.” In that construction, one needs the nominative (also called subjective) case pronoun, “I,” because it is part of the subject (which in this situation is compound, comprising “I and James”). I’m here to tell you that lightning will not strike you down for putting “I” first in such a construction. Politeness is a nicety, not a rule. There’s nothing grammatically wrong with “I and James.”

When I discuss this on Twitter, I leave out the subjective discussion because that isn’t the issue; it’s not the point. I see no need to muddy the already turbid waters with something that isn’t part of the problem. The point is, one does not say “Please join I for dinner.” (I can say without hesitation I have never heard anyone say this.) Therefore, one also does not properly say “Please join James and I for dinner.” (And yet, people DO say this.) The pronoun you want there is “me.” You can also say “us,” if you like. There are many ways to say things in English, many of which are utterly correct and standard. I am focusing here on the I/me problem. The hypercorrection is the use of the subjective “I” when the construction calls for the objective “me.” I see this regularly in public-facing writing from people and companies I feel should know better. (I hold them to a higher standard. I expect standard grammar and usage from, say, a publishing company or an elected official. More the fool me, I suppose.)

I have linguist colleagues who have discussed this at length, and I fully appreciate their input. What I don’t appreciate is someone deciding that I am wrong for not also discussing the subjective pronouns at length in what would become, of necessity, a pretty hefty thread, and then being passive-aggressive about it. That is a bad look, folks. If you want to talk about the subjective pronouns, have at it on your timeline. Knock yourselves out. But quote-tweeting me or anyone in order to attempt to prove me or them wrong, somehow, is not a good move. (Especially if you’ve had no interaction with the person you decide to take to task, before doing this.) Asking a question is far better. “What about ‘Julio and me are going to the store?’ Isn’t it supposed to be ‘Julio and I’?”

When we see examples provided in a discussion, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how they are constructed. If all the examples show objective case pronouns, why would the discussion be about subjective case? Think about reading entries in a style guide. The examples elaborate on the specific rule/guidance in the entry. Sometimes examples read a little strangely (“Why would anyone say that?”), but they’re constructed to provide instruction on a particular issue. The examples I provide support the topic under discussion, not something different (even if it’s related).

So, let’s recap.

“James and I are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case

“I and James are going out for drinks.” Standard, subjective case, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and me for dinner.” Standard, objective case

“Please join me and James for dinner.” Standard, objective case, perhaps less polite

“James and me are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position

“Me and James are going out for drinks.” Nonstandard, objective case in subject position, perhaps less polite

“Please join James and I for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection

“Please join I and James for dinner.” Nonstandard, subjective case in object position, hypercorrection, perhaps less polite

I trust that I have satisfied everyone who feels I need to address more than one topic at a time. And whether I have or not, they can join me (not “join I”) for drinks at a conference sometime, when it’s safe for us to do that again.

Grammar Day 2016: Two days later

I knew Greenbaum had to address the subject/object pronoun situation somewhere. It’s taken me this long to find it. (And if you think that means I’ve been tirelessly poring over the text, hunting for the entry, I appreciate your mental picture of me. I picked up the book again this morning, opened it, flipped a few pages, and there it was. Silly me, having tried to use the index the other day. What a maroon.) Continue reading “Grammar Day 2016: Two days later”

Me and Julio

Paul Simon’s lyrics notwithstanding, it’s nonstandard to say “Me and Julio went down by the schoolyard.” (Note, I didn’t say “improper” although I admit to having typed that initially.) Keep in mind, I write tips for standard English — not for dialects or regional speech or what have you. Those have their own grammars and their own rules, none of which I’m qualified to write about; I’m not a linguist.

How do you know when to use “me” and when to use “I?” Or “us” and “we?” (This is covered by a real, live rule — not a guideline. It’s a rule.) There are nominative case pronouns (like “I” and “we” and “he” and “she”) and objective case pronouns (like “me” and “us” and “him” and “her”), and they’re not interchangeable.So, how do you know which to use when you need to say that you and that guy and that woman over there all did something together, and you don’t want to name names?

Would you really say “Us went to the movies last night”? Would you? I highly doubt it. So, you wouldn’t say “Me went to the movies last night” either, most likely, or “Him went to the movies” or “Her went to the movies” or “Them went to the movies.” I hope you’re seeing a pattern here.

“We went to the movies last night.” That’s the nominative case; “we” is the subject of the sentence. If you went alone, you’d say “I went to the movies last night.” Now, let’s add more words and see what happens.

“James and me went to the movies last night.” Really? If you weren’t telling me James was with you, would you say “me went to the movies”? I didn’t think so. So, you don’t say it when you are adding James to the subject. “James and I went to the movies.” Take the other person (or people) out of your sentence and figure out which pronoun you’d use, and then use that one when you put the other people back in. You’ll still be correct.

“Paul and she went to the movies last night.” If Paul wasn’t in the picture, you’d say “she went to the movies.” There’s no need to change the word when you put Paul into the sentence. You can even put her first: “She and Paul went to the movies.” If you don’t want to name him, but you want to tell us that Paul and she went, you say “they went to the movies,” not “them went.” ¬†Follow that logic out (because here’s a situation where logic actually works in English), and you’ll find that you can also correctly say “They and I went to the movies.”

Now, let’s look at which words to use with prepositions, like “between.” Prepositions take the objective case (me, us, him, her, them). “Just between us” is a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard often. It’s correct. So, again following the logic (which is a rare thing in English, so it’s pretty exciting!), you’d say “just between you and me” — NOT “just between you and I.” That’s a classic case of hypercorrection stemming from your mom (or me!) telling you not to say “James and me went to the movies.” If it’s wrong there, surely it’s wrong everywhere. Except it’s not.

“Join James and I for a Hangout-On-Air.” Think about that, given what I’ve explained. Is it correct? Remove “James and” from the sentence; what pronoun would you use to refer to yourself?

I’m not telling. Consider this a quiz. (You know I was a language arts teacher, long ago and far away.)