Comedic NomConjObj

Tell it to Kim. Tell it to me. Tell it to Kim and I.

The new paradigm for case-marking of pronouns, including the nominative conjoined object (NomConjObj) in to Kim and I — now judged to be the correct form by a large population of young, educated American speakers, as against the judgments of older speakers, who use instead accusative conjoined objects (AccConjObj), as in to Kim and me.

Entertainingly, the new paradigm is evidenced in tv comedies in which grammatically fastidious characters freely use NomConjObj and even admonish those who use AccConjObj.

On the tube 1. From Wilson Gray on ADS-L on 11/10 under the header “Pseudo-prescriptivism in TV dialogue”, a report of dialogue from the animated sitcom Mr. Pickles, S3 E10 (2013), here from the Springfield! Springfield! site of movie and tv scripts (alas, without any contextual information):

[A:] Shut up! This is between me and Grandpa.

[B:] It’s Grandpa and I. If you’re gonna speak English, at least use proper grammar.

B holds the view that NomConjObj is the correct usage, so B admonishes A for the AccConjObj and corrects the Acc to Nom (also reordering the conjuncts to put the 1sg conjunct second, as a matter of conventional politeness).

WG, looking at matters from the point of view of the old paradigm for case-marking in coordinate NPs (still the one prescribed in usage handbooks), sees this not as prescriptivism, but as pseudo-prescriptivism, based on what he views as vulgar hypercorrection. (I note that Wilson and I are old guys, both around 80, two (or three) generations older than one of the central human characters in Mr. Pickles, a 6-year-old boy.)

On the tube 2. After Wilson and I posted on this excerpt in ADS-L, and I supplied a reference to my postings on NomConjObj — an inventory of examples here and links to postings on pronoun case in English here — David Daniel was reminded (yesterday) of the character Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory:

This was quite common on The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon loved to correct other folks’ grammar, but then would turn around and say “between you and I,” “give it to Leonard and I,” etc. … I wrote to them several times about it over the years but, unsurprisingly, they never wrote back and never corrected it.

[No doubt they didn’t change their ways because they saw nothing to correct in the scripts.]

Sheldon was in fact famously peevish about pretty much all the classic (but misguided) peeve targets in English grammar, but didn’t react to NomConjObj and used the construction himself regularly. From a transcripts site, an excerpt from S10 E24 “The Long Distance Dissonance”, with Sheldon (at CalTech) and Amy (visiting Princeton) on the telephone:

Amy: I miss you.

Sheldon: I miss you, too.

Amy: It’s so strange, earlier today I ended a sentence with a preposition and you weren’t there to correct my grammar.

Sheldon: I’m sorry you had to go through that.

Amy: In fact, that’s when I started to really miss you.

Sheldon: You know you just split an infinitive.

Amy: Did I? Are you gonna teach me a lesson?

Sheldon: I am. It is naughty to put an adverb between the word to and the verb stem.

Amy: What are you gonna do about it?

Sheldon: I’m going to admonish you.

Amy: Vigorously?

Sheldon: That’s the only kind of admonishing I do.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, we get Sheldon saying things like:

Between you and I, Leonard, I have experienced a problem none of the great scientific minds within our select circle can manage to solve. (link)

Notes on the shows. In my 2/17/16 posting “A passion for pickles”, there’s a section on Mr. Pickles, an American adult — frankly, scabrous — animated sitcom revolving around the Goodman family, especially their 6-year-old son Tommy and the family’s border collie, the demonic Mr. Pickles:

(#1) The main cast of Mr. Pickles

And in my 7/30/15 posting “Name play in the comics”, there’s a section on The Big Bang Theory, set among the young and educated folk of Southern California, centering around CalTech:

(#2) The main cast of The Big Bang Theory; Sheldon is the tall one in the Green Lantern t-shirt (he has a huge collection of mostly nerdish t-shirts)

Correctness, and case-marking in coordinate structures. In his remarks, David Daniel fails to appreciate that grammatical correctness is exquisitely context-specific sociolinguistically: it’s a matter of conforming to the standards of some social group at a particular place and time and in specific settings.

From the point of view of the Big Bang Theory‘s characters (all in their 20s or 30s), including Jim Parsons’s character Sheldon, and probably for Parsons himself (who is now 46), and almost surely for the (mostly young) scriptwriters on the show, NomConjObj is not only acceptable, it is the (only) correct formal usage; they would take AccConjObj to be informal, unserious, low-class, and so to be avoided. (More on this point below.) The character Sheldon is exactly the sort of young person (with his prissy drive for correctness) who would use NomConjObj across the board.

(The writers for Mr. Pickles are surely also young, but it’s hard to assess the sociolinguistic status of the characters — would a demon dog be expected to have a fixation on grammatical correctness? — so I’ll simply fold this example in with the other.)

Otherwise, usageist discussions of case-marking in coordinate structures have been hopelessly muddled by two assumptions: (a) distributivity as a (putatively universal) condition on the well-formedness of constituent coordination (this assumption permitting only AccConjObjs, never NomConjObjs); and (b) the error of hypercorrection as the (only) source of NomConjObjs. These matters are treated at some length in postings described in my Page on pronoun case; here a lightning overview.

Distributivity says, very roughly, that X combined with [ Y1 and Y2], for some syntactic categories X and Y, is well-formed only if

[ X  Y1 ] and [ X Y2 ]

is, hence only if both [ X Y1 ] and [ X Y2 ] are. So, on this assumption, to Kim and I is well-formed only if to Kim and to I is well-formed, that is, only if both to Kim and to I are well-formed, but to I is not, so the coordination to Kim and I is not. (In addition, distributivity guides semantic interpretation.)

But distributivity is a property of expressions in certain formal systems, not necessarily of expressions in actual languages. It turns out that distributivity with the English coordinator and is a default condition on the syntax of the language, but it is hedged round with numerous exceptions — specific constructions that have their own conditions. For those speakers that have it, NomConjObj is one such little island of specialness.

Hypercorrection is a much more gigantic mess. A complex fabric of dogma, a kind of usage legend, has built up around the idea that NomConjObjs originated historically in an error of hypercorrection: children responded to prescriptions against AccConjSubjs, as in Me and Kim did it / Kim and me did it (an incredibly widespread vernacular usage), by substituting the normative standard NomConjSubj, Kim and I did it, for it and then, in the usual story, overextending this replacement to AccConjObjs.

Now, hypercorrection of this sort might have occurred on occasion, though I know of no accounts of specific instances of such events; instead the hypercorrection origin story is a explanation after the fact: people asked themselves where this strange (illogical!) usage could have come from, and hit on hypercorrection as a simple and plausible hypothesis. The actual history is much more complicated than this; in particular, NomConjObj seems to substantially predate school focus on wiping out AccConjSubj and to be associated with emphasis and formality.

In any case, even if NomConjObj had (contrary to fact) originated entirely in instances of hypercorrection, those would have been historical events that left as their traces only the actual expressions, which would then have been picked up by other speakers as the way to talk, at least in certain circumstances. Later speakers would then in no sense be hypercorrecting. I would venture to say that not a single example from my inventory of NomConjObjs is actually a hypercorrection, created by an individual speaker in the confusion of a moment.

Please bear that in mind. From the point of view of the language today, hypercorrection is an utter red herring. What we are seeing is variant usages in the current language, distributed sociolinguistically in what turns out to be a very complex way.

The historical elevation of NomConjObj. A landmark event was recognized in my 4/30/19 posting “NomConjObj in the New Yorker”: what I believe to be the first non-quoted NomConjObj to escape the copyeditors at the magazine (after having appeared in the work of careful (but younger) writers in the New York Times and many other publications, for years):

It would then be totally unsurprising for [New Yorker writer Joshua Rothman, in his late 30s] to use a NomConjObj in his writing for the magazine. By now, the copyeditors will also be on the young side and would find nothing notable about the usage; in fact, it’s quite likely that they would balk at an AccConjObj (as my Stanford undergraduates already did 10-15 years ago), as sounding unserious, too informal for academic writing, even a vulgar error — no matter how much [New Yorker writer Louis Menand, “the magazine’s dragon on English usage” (AZ), in his late 60s] might fume that only AccConjObjs are acceptable.

From my earlier notes on the subject: on 2/4/15 in “Sunday NomConjObj”, with an example in an interview in the NYT Sunday Review:

From a 2/24/14 posting:

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 [CBS News reporter Bill] Flanagan suggests; usage critics are often quick to attribute motives to speakers, rather than just reporting their beliefs), while others simply think that [NomConjObjs] are the way the language works.

For older speakers, NomConjObjs tend to be used in informal contexts, especially in speech …, but sometimes in informal writing as well … But for many younger speakers (like my Stanford students), NomConjObjs are the default.

It’s not just younger speakers, it’s especially younger educated speakers. Intimations of this situation in example #17 from my inventory:

from a Prairie Home Companion comedy skit on the broadcast of 8/27/05 (a rebroadcast from 9/04): — These are the good days for Jim and me — or Jim and I, as I used to say when I went to college.

That is, when the speaker went to college, she used proper grammar, the formal standard, in this case NomConjObj. But now she’s loosened up and uses the more vernacular, informal variant, AccConjObj.

And we also have Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, an extravagant demon for correctness, for whom AccConjObj would just be a flagrant mistake and would require correction.  He doesn’t use it, and he doesn’t correct NomConjObj, because for him that’s right.

A final request. Please do not write me to say that you can’t accept NomConjObj, you think it’s just wrong, illogical, stupid, illiterate (and it’s even worse that some people inexplicably, irrationally treat it as the best usage). Of course you think this; those are the sociocultural values you associate with the usage (I remind you that I don’t use this variant at all). But things are very different for others, and they are the wave of the future; barring some extraordinary usage shift, NomConjObj will be with us for a long time to come, and it will probably continue to be associated with education and formality. It’s tony.

5 Responses to “Comedic NomConjObj”

  1. kenru Says:

    It’s been maybe forever since I was so upset by a linguistic trend. I realize I’m not supposed to write you to say this. But I guess I’m just an old fogey who will never accept NomConjObj as being correct. Now that I have been made aware that this represents future orthodoxy, I’m less enthusiastic about growing older.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      First, as an old friend, let me say: get a grip, man; this issue is scarcely worth the distress and despair you’re experiencing. But then, as a linguist, I’ll treat the extravagance of your response as a reflection of the power of the symbolic values AccConjObj and NomConjObj have for you (and a great many others). The details of the syntactic constructions in question are pretty much beside the point here; it’s all about sociocultural associations.

      I don’t have the time to comment fully on the matter (and probably never will; my universe is contracting in upon me; time is running out), but a few notes.

      Contrast NomConjObj with another English construction that has spread among younger speakers (and has now essentially run to completion, so that it is either the standard variant or one of two standard variants, depending on who you talk to): +of EDM (exceptional degree marking): the construction in
      so/too/how/… big of a dog
      versus the older standard -of variant in
      so/too/how… big a dog

      Both +of EDM and NomConjObj were widely panned by usage authorities when they spread among younger speakers: because they were perceived as being new, or at least newly popular; and because they were in large part the property of the young (at least at the outset). (Note: in neither case is comprehensibility an issue; users of one variant might disdain, or even passionately detest, the other variant, but everybody understands the intended meanings.)

      The story of +of EDM is the story of vast numbers of other spreading innovations: they elicit decades or centuries of prescriptivist scorn; sometimes they simply become stably non-standard variants (this is essentially what happened to ain’t); but sometimes they spread into standard territory. +of EDM has gone pretty much all the way; as the remaining older -of EDM speakers (like me) die off, the of-less variant will come to be seen as an archaism or a quaint dialectal form. Its spread wasn’t without contention and complaint, but it didn’t elicit the kind of passionate responses that have attended the spread of NomConjObj.

      I have to conclude that NomConjObj comes with extremely strong, and highly negative, sociocultural associations that -of EDM lacks. But it’s not clear to me what those are; obviously, I don’t share them. (I use neither +of EDM nor NomConjObj, but neither of them makes my blood boil.) But I know from other cases that particular linguistic variants are capable of tapping into powerful negative sociocultural associations and then eliciting strong emotional responses, up to and including murderous rage.

      There are questions here that deserve careful study: what the associations of particular linguistic variants are, and how they arise in the personal histories of speakers. These are hard questions; neither introspection nor the fashioning of plausible stories can, by themselves, provide satisfactory answers.

  2. J B Levin Says:

    I am no linguist; when I was in high school I had barely heard of linguistics. I was a sort of grammar nerd (but not a grammar cop or hypercorrector) and knew perfectly well to use AccConjObj, in your lingo, and I implicitly understood distributivity as you have described it (of course I had never heard of it) to justify my use of accusative forms of pronouns as objects. Also, I had learned very young to use NomConjSubj from corrections by parents and other adults. As a result of this, and of hearing other people corrected for using AccConjSubj, I concluded also that the most common example of this kind of “bad grammar”, the phrase “between you and I”, resulted from people applying this common correction incorrectly to “between you and me”. It seemed logical in high school, and this blog post is the first intimation I have had that there was anything wrong with the hypercorrection hypothesis. It goes to show than something I was sure of for well over 50 years was just not true.

    I am surprised, by the way, that anyone could consider AccConjObj to be “informal, unserious, low-class”. Perhaps NomConjObj and other modernizations of what is acceptable are a different category from colloquial speech; I have always considered that language which is increasingly correct (in some sense) was always more formal and serious, which is what makes it hard for me to see NomConjObj as formal and serious.

    For completeness, I should add that of many acts against grammar or spelling that are daily seen, for me (unlike Ken) this does not result in a strong urge to correct; merely a cringe I keep to myself.

    Thanks for yet another thoroughgoing explanation of a fascinating topic that I hadn’t thought since I was 15 would yield so much. (I did say I’m no linguist.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You write: “I am surprised, by the way, that anyone could consider AccConjObj to be “informal, unserious, low-class”.”

      I’m pretty sure that what happened is that first, NomConjObj took on the values of formality and correctness — and then that AccConjObj was devalued by contrast. In principle the two variants *could* just have coexisted as alternatives, but there’s a very strong disinclination for people to allow free variation, so that a bit of meaning in one alternative is likely to induce a contrastive shift in the other.

  3. Stewart Kramer Says:

    I guess variations in usage are only considered correct or incorrect in particular contexts, but people do judge each other all the time. My favorite example is “traveling at a high rate of speed” in police reports, which has become almost a fixed phrase, even though it always sounds to me like a low-class person not knowing how to use formal words correctly (since speed is already a rate, and “moving quickly” seems more simple and natural, plus I prefer the British “travelling”).

    I’m often surprised by “youngster” usages in people older than me: Passed instead of passed away or passed on, graduated school instead of graduated from school (or were graduated from school, which sounds quaint to me), but language moves on.

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