Idiolect or style level?

Recent mail from Rodney Huddleston quotes me on pronoun case:

Note again the contrast between WHO and the ordinary personal pronouns. For the ordinary personal pronouns, Form1 [the ‘nominative’] has, for many speakers, come to be seen as formal, serious, and emphatic — a development that leads some of these speakers to prefer “between you and I” and the like in serious contexts. (link)

and asks:

Is it the case that people use this coordinate nominative in ‘serious’ or formal contexts. My impression is that  people who use it do so irrespective of the formality of the context. It’s not, I think, that they say ‘They invited Sue and I’ in formal contexts but ‘They invited Sue and me’ in informal contexts. My feeling is that it is a matter of idiolect rather than style level. Do you know if there has been any empirical study on this issue?

I don’t know of any empirical study on the question, and it would take some serious work to do such a study. You’d have to track the actual usage of individual speakers in corpora of some size, while determining the formality of contexts in the corpora you collect. Or you could do an experimental study in which formality of context was controlled for, while eliciting conjoined pronouns of the appropriate type (without revealing to the subjects what you were after). Either way, it’s an ambitious project.

I do, however, know where my judgment that many speakers see the nominative of ordinary personal pronouns as formal, serious, or emphatic comes from: some speakers have said as much to me, and here’s a quote from a Prairie Home Companion comedy skit (from September 2004) that presupposes this belief about NomConjObjs (nominative conjoined objects):

These are the good days for Jim and me — or Jim and I, as I used to say when I went to college.

But “many” in my judgment might well be wrong. It might be that most people have either invariant accusative or invariant nominative for conjoined object pronouns, while a minority have variable case depending on formality. (Of course, if this is a sizable minority, than “many” would be justified.) All that would have to be determined by empirical study.

Two further complications.

One, there probably are people who use between you and I ‘(just) between the two of us’ but not other NomConjObjs; for them, between you and I is an idiom, a fixed formula. So that research on NomConjObjs should probably set this formula aside — an ironic consequence, in that so much of the writing on NomConjObjs focuses on just this expression. (The otherwise well-informed Lexicon Valley podcast on NomConjObjs, for example, is really about between you and I.)

Two, as I’ve noted in several of my postings, some occurrences of NomConjObjs have some syntactic motivation, namely in what I’ve called “notional-subject NomConjObjs”, as in

You’re getting everything that you’ve heard Norm and I talk about…

These examples

involve (coordinate) objects functioning as the notional subject of a following VP — a likely context for nominative case, since the cooordinate NP “feels” subject-like to many speakers, even more likely in a coordinate object, where nominative case is now widespread. (See brief discussion in connection with [one example] here.)

So there might be people who favor notional-subject NomConjObjs but not NomConjObjs like the one in the Prairie Home Companion example. If so, a study of NomConjObjs should probably treat the notional-subject cases separately.

In any case, lots of work to do.


3 Responses to “Idiolect or style level?”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    A footnote from Rodney Huddleston:

    … it’s interesting to note that Halliday et al (Introduction to Functional Grammar, 3rd ed, p. 119) call the nominative in these coordinate constructions ‘the norm’.

  2. Franzo Law II Says:

    Is there really no historical evidence of the disjunctive pronoun in English?

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