Helping the kid out

From the most recent  NYT “Metropolitan Diary” (on-line on the 26th, in the national edition on the 28th), a contribution from Michael Joseloff that begins:

Two teenagers with clipboards were stopping passers-by on the Upper East Side. I was in a hurry to get to the bank, so I tried to maneuver past them and avoid their pitch. No luck.

“Me and my friend are trying to raise money to buy uniforms for our basketball team,” one of the boys began, before rattling on with the rest of his memorized speech. To paraphrase Renée Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire,” he had me at “me and my friend.” He seemed sincere. I decided to help.

I was desperately hoping that he was going to help the kid by making a contribution. But no: he proposed to help by correcting the kid’s grammar.

I don’t know where people get the idea that others welcome unbidden corrections of their grammar, but in fact nobody does. Such corrections violate the Gricean maxim of relevance — they are always irrelevant interruptions of the flow of conversation — so they are incredibly rude; and they might well be understood as indicating that the corrector is some sort of monomaniac, perhaps a dangerous one. The exchange went on:

Interrupting his spiel, I said, “My friend and I.” He stared at me in confusion.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not an old fuddy-duddy, but this particular misuse of the language has always irritated me.

“‘Me’ is an object pronoun to be used with prepositions like to, for and by,” I explained. “‘My friend gave me the ball. He gave the ball to me.’ If you are the subject of the sentence, you use I.’ ‘John and I went to the movies.’”

I’ll pass over the ignorant confusion inherent in “if you are the subject of the sentence” — people are not subjects, objects, or whatever, of sentences; there are no people within sentences, only linguistic expressions — but I’ll come back later to the subtler error in saying that Pro is “the subject of the sentence” John and Pro went to the movies, or even a subject of that sentence. In any case, so far Joseloff has established himself as an opinionated asshole who doesn’t know shit about language (but is only parroting ignorant nonsense someone once told him).

It’s clear that Joseloff has an irrational bug up his ass about the expression me and my friend serving as the subject of a sentence — or, more likely, about people who use such expressions this way — and that this attitude is so important to him that he’s willing to derail a conversation in order to browbeat someone who uses it, to try to force him to mend his ways.

It seems to me that the way to deal with a loony like this is to back away and get out of his range, possibly throwing him a defiant Fuck you! along the way. There’s no point trying to reason with crazy people if you don’t have to.

But Joseloff is a lot older than the kid, and might command, in the kid’s eyes, respect due to age (and possibly social class), and anyway, the kid is trying to get a contribution from the crazy guy, so he submits to this bizarre exercise. Joseloff continues:

Clearly, he was a quick learner. “My teammates and I love to play basketball,” he offered, adding, “He gave me the ball.”

“Right,” I said.

“What are you, a teacher?”

“Used to be,” I answered.

“So would you help us out?”

I thought I had, but handed him a $10 bill and went on my way.

The master loony-stroke is Joseloff’s I thought I had, meaning that he thought that he had already helped the boy out — by compelling him to revise his request, saying my teammates and I instead of me and my teammates (“correcting”, note, not only the pronoun case but also the order of pronoun and non-pronominal NP), as if that bit of coercion in this one instance would somehow alter the boy’s English (which Joseloff views as defective) and so make him a better person. In his mind, Joseloff was only doing it for the boy’s good, as they say. (Though, in fact, Joseloff is only doing it to satisfy his own smug sense of superiority.)

At least the boy got $10 for the uniforms, at the cost of some bullshit linguistic bullying (which was probably incomprehensible to him and which he will, in any case, almost surely shrug off as the ravings of an old fool. Well, we can only hope.).

(Yes, the kid should learn that there are contexts in which formal writing calls for things like my teammates and I. Almost surely he already knows that perfectly well. But he would naturally be baffled by the old fool’s insistence that he talk like a textbook.)

(And, yes, I’m subjecting the old fool to savage ridicule for his ignorant rudeness and bullying, but not because I think anything I could say could affect the way he thinks and behaves; if he could have been helped, that would have had to happen many decades ago. But I am calling him out publicly, as the disseminator of injurious falsehood, as the perpetrator of acts that can do damage by undermining the linguistic and social abilities of other people. I’m holding him up as a supremely bad role model in an arena where I actually happen to know things.)

Some facts. Essentially all of what follows I’ve written about on Language Log and this blog, some of it repeatedly. There’s a Page on this blog on “Pronoun case postings” with links to postings on NomConjObj (nominative conjoined objects) and also AccConjSubj (accusative conjoined subjects), which is what we’re into here.

A first, but minor, step is to understand that subjects, direct objects, objects of prepositions, etc. are linguistic expressions, not people, concrete things, situations, qualities, propositions, etc. The subject of

(1) I am queer

as spoken by Arnold Zwicky, is not Arnold Zwicky, but the pronominal NP I.  The subject of (1) cannot speak or write, or, for that matter, engage in sexual relations or walk to the grocery store, and does not live in Palo Alto (the linguistic expression I has no fixed domicile). The subject of (1) is, however, one syllable long, pronominal, and nominative in case; none of these is true of Arnold Zwicky. That is, subject, direct object, etc., as used in discussions of pronoun case, refer to grammatical entities, not to things out in the world.

The pronoun case issue, as concerns us here, has to do with when a Nom case form (1sg I, for example) is used, and when the corresponding Acc form (1sg me) is used. As with all choices in language, we should be prepared, ahead of time, for the possibility of variation — both within a speaker and between speakers — in case use. And then be prepared to have to figure out which groups of speakers use which variants for which purposes in which contexts. All this is a matter of discovery; we can’t know, ahead of time, how the variants will be distributed, syntactically or by social context or by discourse context.

For most varieties of English, in a clause of the form (F1)

(F1) NP VP

generalization (G1) holds:

(G1) A subject NP composed entirely of a personal pronoun is Nom

as in (1).

When the subject NP is conjoined — of the form NP1 and NP2 — things are more complex. This is the first point where the tradition that Joseloff was taught goes seriously awry: it assumes that in a clause of the form (F2)

(F2) NP1 and NP2 VP

NP1 and NP2 are both subjects in the clause. The motivation for this assumption is semantic: in (F2), VP is (usually) understood as predicated of NP1 and also of NP2; the clause

(2) Kim and Sandy can sing

is understood as predicating the ability to sing of Kim and also of Sandy. In fact, the semantics of clauses of the form (F2) is hugely more complex than this, as you can see from considering Frankie and Johnny were a couple, Spaghetti and meatballs is Pat’s favorite meal, Max and Moritz married in Las Vegas, and so on.

However, the syntax — the grammar — of clauses of the form (F2) is much more straightforward: the expression F1 and F2 is the subject of the clause, period, as is indicated by the form of yes-no questions: Were Frankie and Johnny a couple?, Is spaghetti and meatballs Pat’s favorite meal?, Did Max and Moritz marry in Las Vegas?

The (not entirely solid) semantic claim is elevated in “school grammar” to a generalization about case choice in syntax:

(G2) A NP in a constituent NP1 and NP2 has the case it would otherwise have on its own.

(which requires Nom case for both conjuncts in a conjoined subject). This is the doctrine that Joseloff takes to be necessarily true, but it relies on a contingent concordance between semantics and syntax: the syntax of pronoun case could follow the semantics — for conjoined NPs in formal standard written English, it does — but nothing says that it has to: some other principle might apply to conjoined NPs.

In any case, (G1) , which is an empirical generalization of wide validity, combines with the a priori hypothesis (G2) to yield (some of) the system of formal written standard English.

Now, the system of Joseloff’s teenager. This is the system of informal spoken vernacular English, the native variety of many millions of English speakers around the globe, according to which, generalization (G3) holds:

(G3) Unless otherwise stipulated, the case of an NP is Acc.

(G1) is just such a stipulation, so (G1) and (G3) together predict subject I but subject me and my teammates (and subject he but subject him and his friends, etc.). ((G3) does considerably more work than this; see links on my Page.)

[Digression. And then a separate principle of politeness  in formal English, enforced mostly in schools, requires second position for a 1sg pronoun conjunct, contrary to a competing principle calling for first position for the conjunct with the more salient or significant referent; the referent of a 1sg pronoun is almost always highly salient / significant. This yields the odd pattern of preferred orders in the formal standard variety: my friends and I, we and our friends, he and his friends, etc.]

I go through this is such detail — yet again — because people who’ve been indoctrinated into school grammar accounts of subjects and case choice come at the whole business with a series of unexamined, sometimes incoherent, assumptions. There’s no easy way to just jiggle the school-grammar ways of talking about these matters; they have to be re-thought from the ground up.

One Response to “Helping the kid out”

  1. [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky has had enough with linguistic […]

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