Saturday, January 5, 2013

Ouch! I fall off my hobbyhorse

President Obama addressing the Business Roundtable on 5 Dec 2012
Speaking to business leaders last month about the need to avoid the fiscal cliff, Barack Obama reportedly said “Nobody wants to get this done more than me" [9]. If commentators are to be believed he’ll have to make the same speech again in February. But let’s not talk politics, let’s talk linguistics. His speech earnt him a wagged finger from ABC News Political Director Amy Walter, who tweeted a grammar correction. The President ought to have said more than I, not more than me, she claimed. Amy Walter was wrong however. Her tweet exposed her own ignorance, not his, and gives me the chance to ride my hobbyhorse.

I rode it with gusto a couple of years ago. This error of I instead of me is too prevalent of late, and should be curbed. Here’s a dreadful example I came across the other day.  “All debts are cleared between you and I”. Any half decent writer of English knows this should read “All debts are cleared between you and me”. Between, and all other prepositions, take the accusative case: and that’s me not I.

Or so I thought. But hey what's this? It turns out that All debts are cleared between you and I occurs in The Merchant of Venice. It's prose, so probably reflects everyday speech, but Shakespeare clearly regarded it as perfectly respectable. If you’ve a mind to, you can to check the context. [1] 

References for all numbered quotes will open in a separate window.

And Shakespeare can't be wrong. Therefore I must be. Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall; I'm unseated from my hobbyhorse. Happily I have others.

By the way Shakespeare wasn’t consistent; in Hamlet we get betwixt you and me [2]. But what's important here is that to Shakespeare both were okay. And what's more, I overlooked this in the King James Bible: My father is greater than I in John’s Gospel [3].

I suppose I should gloss my statement that Shakespeare can't be wrong. He can be antiquated, yes. But that’s not the case here. When he writes prose, it rarely is.

My language gurus: Shakespeare 1564–1616, Jane Austen  1775–1817, Charlotte Brontë 1816–1855, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd ed 1965). 
Jane Austen agrees with me on “than I”, and so does Fowler.
A bit of history

There's a term in linguistics called the "recency illusion" *, when you wrongly suppose a usage to be new which is in fact old. That’s the very trap I've fallen into. Until this week I imagined than I & between you and I to be a 20th century development.

But look at this evidence that pedants like me have been condemning between you and I for at least 250 years: The satirist Archibald Campbell was taken to task for using this expression in 1767. In his defence, he confessed between you and I to be ungrammatical, but asserted it “is yet almost universally used in familiar conversation” [4]. As it is still.  I have examples of dialogue from Dickens and Trollope [7]
and Casablanca [8] amongst others.

Moving on to the 19th century, several language authorities warned against between you and I, and some of these blamed a campaign against it's me. (I have this information, as well as the next quote, from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage 1994, p 181.)

This point was taken up in the 20th century, by the literary critic Jacques Barzun, who had this to say about between you and I: “This blunder has been the result of a well-meant but foolish conspiracy to root out the use of it's me. The wrongheaded war against that quite idiomatic, informal locution created a bugbear in the minds of the ignorant and timid, which drives them to saying I whenever they have a chance. The upshot is the illiterate between you and I “.

The technical term for avoiding one grammatical trap only to fall into another is hypercorrection. Until a couple of days ago that’s just how I saw the matter.

What do the gurus say?

What of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë?  Jane Austen frowns upon than I. Her refined characters say than me [5]. So she and I are on the same side. But Charlotte Brontë isn't. In Jane Eyre, she uses than me once, but than I frequently [6].

So to my other guru, the mighty Fowler.  In his Dictionary of Modern English Usage H W Fowler calls between you and I a solecism. Can’t get much worse than that. But I have to sorrowfully jettison him, because he's wrong in three ways. Whilst he acknowledges that between you and I has a distinguished ancestry, he doesn't think that counts for anything; he's overlooked Charlotte Brontë; and he doesn't take into account (perhaps he didn't know) that he's waging a campaign that’s been pursued for 250 years without success. Sometimes you just have to say: okay you win.

So what now?

I'll continue to use between you and me, and than me. Moreover I suspect it's true that hypercorrection is one reason (but only one reason) that Amy Walter of ABC News and so many others favour I over me.

But still and all, I can't go against Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Charlotte Brontë, and 450 years (at least) of spoken English. So from now on I'll reluctantly keep my views to myself. Fowler’s condemnation is too severe. Maybe we should go along with Merriam-Webster’s conclusion: “you are probably safe is retaining between you and I in your casual speech, if it exists there naturally, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. But you had better avoid it in essays and other works of a discursive nature. It seems to have no place in modern edited prose.”


By the way the infer/imply howler has some parallels with this me/I question. Might have something to say about that sometime. Don't groan.

* Coined by Arnold M. Zwicky, an American professor of linguistics


  1. This is all fascinating stuff. I, personally, feel that I is wrong, and me is correct, but I wouldn't have been able to say why without your erudite self.

    I am surprised that you have not already expatiated on the infer/imply howler.

  2. Very interesting Pete, and I'm with you and Albert but again it's an instinctive thing - "I" just feels wrong in this context. I think "I" is commonly used instead of "me" incorrectly in other ways too - "You've had comments on this topic from Albert and I" because people think "Albert and me" would be wrong (and now you've got me wondering if it is!). Some teacher once taught us that to check which to use in such circumstances you take out the other person and see if the sentence still makes sense (so take out Albert, and "I" doesn't make sense, but "me" does). Is this correct, and if so is it correct every time? Can't be used in your example really though. The now-common replacement of "me" with "myself" is annoying too! Is the infer/imply "howler" that one is passive and one is active? Hope so but I'm still going to have to look up "expatiated" in the dictionary Alb!

  3. The teacher who taught you to check take out the other person and see if the sentence still makes sense, was right in a small way, but wrong in a bigger way. You should really follow your instinct not your teacher. Hypercorrection occurs when people attend too much to what their teacher said, or what they think their teacher said, and attend too little to their inner voice.

    The linguist Noam Chomsky (I am led to believe) suggested that compound phrases like 'you and I,' ‘Albert and him’, are barriers to the assignment of grammatical case, and the individual words in the phrase are free to be nominative (I), objective (me) or even reflexive (myself). But really all this grammar stuff is beside the point. The rule is, if Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë wrote it, it's good English. (Shakespeare didn't study English grammar, though I daresay Charlotte Brontë did.)