The perils of advice

Blogger Brian Risk puzzled on 11/23/09 about pronoun case with including:

When you determine if you are to use “me” or “I” isn’t it the rule that you are supposed to ignore the words relating to other people? For example “John and me went swimming” is wrong because “me went swimming” isn’t how ya say it.

Here I am now really confused when it comes to sentences that have “everyone including”. To illustrate: “Everyone including me went to the show” is the way I’ve been saying it my whole life, but it just dawned on me how asinine it would be to say just “me went to the show.” However, “everyone including I went to the show” sounds equally asinine, but can this be right?

Risk has dimly remembered some (rather confused) advice about the case of conjoined pronouns and then extended that to examples with the preposition including (instead of the conjunction and); since it’s I went to the show and not me went to the show, he concludes that it should be everyone including I went to the show, despite the fact that this runs counter to his intuitions and his actual practice. Garbled theory trumps facts.

It appears that many others have gone down this path to everyone including I.

A few more examples with including:

Everyone including I was thinking we could Q up old cata raids just like Dragon Soul and be placed with 24 or 9 other Random players across the realms, and go thourgh the raid together. (link) [I was thinking …]

Not till around five years ago did my journey to learn about the subject of selling begin and did I realize that everyone including I is a salesperson. (link) [I am a salesperson]

There was a girl in my class that everyone including I didn’t like. (link) [I didn’t like…]

From the makers of Saw 2, 3 and 4. I guess that’s enough to draw the attention over the movie. That was the hype of the movie, the reason everyone including I wanted to watch it. (link) [I wanted to watch it]

Now, including is one of a set of English Ps with the form of a PRP V — concerning and regarding are two others — with the additional feature that it has additive semantics, which makes it parallel to some degree to the coordinator and. As a P, it combines with an NP (and governs accusative case on a pronoun: No one understands these ideas, including me).

But and also can combine with an NP, in “reduced coordination”, and if the NP is a pronoun, its case is determined by the larger syntactic context: in standard English, Kim and I did it (with Kim and I as subject), They saw Kim and me (with Kim and me as object). The generalization for standard English is

Case Distribution: The case of a coordinate NP distributes to each of the conjuncts.

So: the conjuncts in a subject are nominative, those in an object accusative. (As is well-known, there are a number of non-standard alternative systems for case in coordination.)

Case Distribution can then be used to give a rule of thumb for deciding which case form to use in coordinate NPs in standard English, in particular to choose between me and I. Ultimately, that could give you Ignore Other People, the “ignore the words relating to other people” advice for the case of 1sg conjuncts. (In a moment, I’ll look at another way to get to this advice.) But, unfortunately, Ignore Other People has been disseminated without any explanation of why it might work, and that makes it hard for people (Brian Risk, for one) to know how to use it. As I put it in a posting reporting on two items from Thomas Grano:

On to Grano’s second tale from the world of the advice manuals:

Then there was one usage book saying that in order to determine the grammaticality of a sentence, sometimes you have to add words (e.g., he’s as tall as me –> *he’s as tall as me am), and sometimes you have to subtract words (e.g., me and Sandy went to the store –> *me went to the store). I found that amusing…either add or subtract words, depending on which action will result in whatever judgment the book was going after.

Taken at face value, these instructions do seem entirely ad hoc. Expand here, trim there. Certainly, students must find this advice baffling.

Later, I’ll take up a case similar to the as case Grano mentioned, where the usage manual recommended he’s as tall as I: than in anyone other than, where people are led to things like anyone other than I would complain.

But first, some observations on the treatment of case in coordination. My account above involves two assumptions besides Case Distribution:

Syntactic Function Assignment: syntactic rules assign the syntactic functions SU (subject), DO (direct object), PO (prepositional object), etc. to expressions, in particular NPs. In the clause Kim and I did it, Kim and I is SU and it is DO; in the clause they saw Kim and me, they is SU and Kim and me is DO.

Case Assignment: syntactic rules assign case to NPs on the basis of various factors, in particular syntactic function. The default assignments include nominative case for SUs (like Kim and I in Kim and I did it) and accusative case for DOs (like Kim and me in they saw Kim and me).

Then Case Distribution accounts for the I of Kim and I and the me of Kim and me in these examples.

This is not quite the view taken in school grammars and advice books, where it’s said that in Kim and I did it, there are two SUs, Kim and I, and that in They saw Kim and me, there are two DOs, Kim and me. These assumptions do the work of Case Distribution, but they make hash of the notion of syntactic SU and DO; the full coordinate NPs Kim and I and Kim and me show the grammatical properties of SU and DO, respectively — Kim and I inverts in Subject-Auxiliary Inversion, Kim and me is passivizable, etc. — and (except for the case they bear) the individual conjuncts do not. (There’s a reason why school grammars treat the conjuncts in coordinate NPs this way: they take SU, DO, etc. to be semantically based.)

In any case, the way case assignment works in standard English makes the Ignore Other People usable  as a rule of thumb — but only if you understand its basis. Otherwise, you may be tempted to extend it to domains where it is in fact inapplicable.

On to the anyone other than case. This shares with everyone including the involvement of what is arguably a preposition: including, than (taller than he), as (the same table as he), beside(s) (anyone beside(s) I), and like (a girl like I). For than, the dispute is whether it is a subordinator or a preposition or (as is clearly the right answer) sometimes one and sometimes the other; a compact discussion of the issue is here. For those who claim than is only a subordinator, it occurs in combination with a NP only by virtue of ellipsis (taller than he is short for taller than he is); similarly for as and like. Possibly beside(s) and including are sometimes treated analogically to these.

A few examples of anyone other than I (from among many):

Anyone other than I enjoy watching Democrats being arrested on “Cops & Bait Car “? (link)

Does anyone other than I think that African-American is an oxy-moron? (link)

Not sure anyone other than I … will enjoy it, but… (link)

There are two ways anyone other than I could be considered to be elliptical — as short for other than I am or as short for other than I VP, with the VP supplied by the following context — but neither makes sense:

??Not sure anyone other than I am will enjoy it.

*Not sure that anyone other than I will enjoy it will enjoy it.

Nevertheless, the advice for other uses of than seems to have slopped over onto this use, where a nominative pronoun is firmly non-standard. Bad advice begets bad syntax.


8 Responses to “The perils of advice”

  1. Thomas Grano Says:

    And to “add words”/”expand here” and “subtract words”/”trim there”, we can also add “turn the sentence around”, invoked for motivating nominative case in predicative complements. (“Me is it” is wrong, therefore “It is me” must be wrong too, so we must “correct” to “It is I”.)

    Rebecca Elliott’s (1997) Painless Grammar (New York: Barron’s) illustrates all three kinds of advice on the same page:

    “How can you tell whether to use a subjective pronoun or an objective pronoun? Add more words to the sentence (or delete words) until you can tell which pronoun sounds right. […] Here is another trick to use when you are confused: turn the sentence around and notice what sounds right.” (p. 19)

  2. Ellen K. Says:

    What’s a PRP V? I assume V means verb, but I can’t figure out PRP.

  3. the ridger Says:

    The advice is perilous. “He left before I” will be the result of ‘adding’ the ‘rest’ of the sentence.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Yes. I point this out to than-as-conjunction people, but to no effect. They just tell me that the conjunctions before and after don’t allow ellipsis — that is, they just restate the facts — so that, they say, my observations are irrelevant.

      In general, advice givers treat their pieces of advice as specific to the phenomenon at hand and not as generalizations that can be applied to other cases and tested as hypotheses about the way the language works. They are fixes for particular cases, but dressed up as general principles.

  4. like you and I « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] back in March, in “The perils of advice“, I looked at more wonky grammatical reasoning, which led a blogger to conclude that you […]

  5. More perils of advice « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I wrote in a piece on pronoun case (“The perils of advice”) a few months ago, confronting regrettable things like everyone including I and everyone other than […]

  6. NomPrepObj « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] There was a girl in my class that everyone including I didn’t like. (link) [posting on this one here] […]

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