More Recency Illusion

From Tom Grano, a CBS News report from yesterday, from Bill Flanagan, representing the “grammar police”:

Time now for a public service announcement from our contributor and first-person-singular-pronoun policeman Bill Flanagan of VH1:

I know it sounds snobby to point this out, but in the last 10 or 15 years, millions of intelligent English-speaking people have become flummoxed by when to use “I,” and when to use “me.” You hear it all the time:

Are you coming to the movie with Madonna and I?
Won’t you join Oprah and I for dinner?
The Trumps are throwing a party for Barack and I.

It’s embarrassing!

At least people who mess up the other way — “Goober and me are going to town” — sound folksy, colloquial, down-to-Earth. But people who say “I” when they should say “me” sound like they are trying to be sophisticated and they’re getting it wrong.

There’s a lot to criticize here. But I’ll start with the phenomenon, known in the syntax business as the Nominative Conjoined Object (NomConjObj for short) and the claim that it’s arisen only recently.

The recency claim is just an illusion; Flanagan has only recently begun noticing the phenomenon, though in fact it’s been around for quite some time. See the discussion in

Thomas Grano, “Me and her” meets “he and I”: Case, person, and linear ordering in English coordinated pronouns. Stanford Univ. honors thesis in linguistics (2006) (text here)

So much for recency. But there’s more. In my 6/23/09 posting on this blog, “Sotomayoral NomConjObj” (link), I noted that NomConjObjs were to be found in the speech, and often writing as well, of academics, scientists, and the like. And went on to write:

NomConjObjs have been savaged by usage critics as one of the worst offenses against grammar in modern English. James Cochrane, for instance, chose to honor them in the title of his sour little book of criticism Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English (2004). But look at the Between you and I entry in MWDEU and the Language Log discussions by me in 2005 and Geoff Pullum in 2006.

Geoff’s discussion makes the important points (a) that people who use NomConjObjs are not confused about the distinction between subjects and objects, but are using pronoun case in coordination according to a somewhat different system from the grammar-book prescriptions; and (b) that whether this system should be accounted as acceptable in standard English is a separate (and much more difficult) question from how the system works.

I have gradually come to be conclusion that NomConjObjs should be seen as an alternative standard usage (largely in coexistence with the prescriptive standard of AccConjObj). The question is then who uses which version, in which contexts, for which purposes. The tentative answer to this question looks complex: I know from interviewing speakers informally that some think that NomConjObjs are formal and “serious” (this is not the same thing as saying that users of the variant are “trying to be sophisticated”, as Flanagan suggests; usage critics are often quick to attribute motives to speakers, rather than just reporting their beliefs), while others simply think that they are the way the language works. The whole story is surely more complex than this.

A final sting: it’s appalling that Flanagan sets himself up as an authority on grammar and usage when he knows nothing about scholarship on the topic he’s looking at (there’s a considerable amount, but he should at least have consulted MWDEU) and makes no attempt to find out the facts of how the variants are used. It’s all do-it-yourself, off-the-cuff musing. For shame.

2 Responses to “More Recency Illusion”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    My grandmother, born 1887 in western Oregon, grade school education, did grammatical constructions like this quite frequently.

Leave a Reply