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September 15, 2018

What’s it to you and me?

If you are a child of educated native English speakers, chances are your parents corrected you when you said things like “Lynn and me want to go to the movies.” In the pre-Cookie Monster era, you would never have thought to say “Me want to go to the movies,” because you had learned to use “I” in the subject position, as contrasted with “me” in the object position. Somehow, though, as soon as the subject of the sentence is a coordinate noun phrase of the form “X and Y,” and at least one of X and Y is a pronoun, the rule for using the nominative case of the pronoun (the form appropriate for sentence subjects) cedes control to some other rule. Linguists have been aware of this phenomenon for a long time, as were—no doubt—your vigilant parents.

In recent decades, the complementary phenomenon, substituting the nominative case for the accusative—the form appropriate for objects of prepositions and verbs—in coordinate objects has become common, so common that it is now a de facto rule of English grammar. Here, for example, is a recent [September 1, 2018] quote from an articulate and educated American orator, former president Barack Obama, speaking at a memorial service for John McCain:

It showed his irreverence, his sense of humor, a little bit of a mischievous streak. What better way to get a last laugh than make George [W. Bush] and I say nice things about him to a national audience?

He would never have said “make I say nice things,” because “I” is the object of the verb “make,” and the object form of the first-person singular pronoun is “me.” As soon as the object is a coordinate phrase “X and Y,” however, a different rule apparently takes over.

In Roy Blount, Jr.’s Alphabetter Juice, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011), p. 150, he attributes the new rule to “me-fear”—the embarrassment at having been corrected for such utterances as “Me ‘n’ Jim went down to the store.” Scholars of English grammar agree on this as the likely genesis of the rule, though not with Blount’s prescriptivist attitude toward what he, quoting Charles Hoyt, calls “the vile misuse of I.” The descriptivist position is firmly asserted in Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press (2002), p. 463:

Because these coordinate nominatives are perceived to be associated with avoidance of stigmatized accusatives in subject coordinations, they are often described as hypercorrections. This is to imply that they are ‘incorrect’, not established forms in the standard language. [The construction] with I as final coordinate is, however, so common in speech and used by so broad a range of speakers that it has to be recognised as a variety of Standard English …

(See also p. 9.) I don’t know how old the new rule is, but I have noticed it only in the last twenty years or so. At first, I heard people hesitate approaching a coordinate object, presumably mulling over the appropriate case of the pronoun(s). Now I never hear hesitation; most speakers move forthrightly to the nominative case. As to how long speakers of English have been changing the case rules in coordinate noun phrases, here’s a pronouncement from the abstract for a scholarly Canadian article:

Variable case marking of pronouns in coordinate noun phrases (CoNPs) is a well-documented phenomenon which has elicited prescriptive censure for centuries.

The old rule—in subject positions use the subject form, in object positions the object form—is simpler than the new rule, which I won’t even attempt to formulate. For example, is it only the first person singular, I/me, that is implicated? What about the following sentences?

The rules give you and she one minute to guess [not first person].

The torch has been passed to your siblings and we [not singular].

The added complexity is interesting because the expressive potential of English with the old rule was presumably adequate already, so it’s not obvious what purpose is served by introducing ornateness. When we study Latin we are struck by how vastly more complex its rules for declining nouns and conjugating verbs are than ours, and those facets of grammar make it look as though English is the result of enormous simplification. The intricate rules for inflecting nouns, adjectives, and verbs, however, made it possible for speakers of Latin to play with syntax—the order of words within sentences—to an unparalleled degree, something not remotely possible in English, which has a much less forgiving syntax. English has other complexities, too. My maternal grandmother, whose native language was German—a language which has not only complex declensions and conjugations, but also rigid syntax—never mastered the progressive tense (“He’s wearing the shirt you gave him”), and never learned to use the auxiliary verb will/would properly. Evidently, a language adequate to express everything we want to say requires a certain level of complexity, just not always in the same grammatical categories. For a possible corrective to this view, see, for example, science-and-technology/2010/01/25/babelicious" or https://cosmosmagazine.com/social-sciences/languages-get-simpler-when-more-people-speak-them.