Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Ye Olde Grammarian (No. 2)
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I'm honored to have been asked to do a guest post today on Felicia Wetzig's blog The Peasants Revolt. I mounted a slightly lengthened version of my post on the elements of the epic form from my other blog The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head. Go check it out!
NOW, BACK TO YE OLDE GRAMMARIAN!
When I wrote my first Olde Grammarian post in August, I intended to make it a series, so here comes the second installment -- better late than never! And it's nice to write something neutral after all those intense Mythmaker posts (although I'm not finished with that subject either).
Today I'm going to talk about a set of extremely common errors that really bugged my grammar-loving mother. Because I learned my grammar from her, they bug me, too! These are errors that you hear constantly in conversations, on TV, etc., and also read in print. If you're sensitive to them, they drive you crazy!
The topic is the proper use of pronoun cases. I honestly think English must be changing, because these days nobody seems able to distinguish the difference between nominative and objective cases of pronouns. I wonder if they even touch on this subject in school anymore.
The nominative cases of pronouns are (singular): I, you, he, she, it; (plural): we, you, they. The objective cases are (singular): me, you, him, her, it; (and plural): us, you, them.
Obviously, the problem lies with first and third person (2nd person "you" is the same everywhere -- isn't that convenient? "It" also doesn't change.) "Nominative" means that the word is used as the subject of a verb. "Objective" means that the word is used as the object of something -- a verb or a preposition or as an indirect object.
So you say, "I gave him the books." Nobody ever makes a mistake with this and says, "Me gave he the books." Also, you would say, "He gave the books to them." Nobody would ever say, "Him gave the books to they." So far so good.
Where the problem mysteriously arises is in the use of compound subjects and objects. Tell me which is right: "I gave the books to her and him." "I gave the books to she and he." "I gave the books to she and him." [Answer: the first one is correct.]
Another example -- which is right? "She and I went to the dance with he and she." "Me and she went to the dance with she and him." "She and I went to the dance with him and her." "She and I went to the dance with he and her." [Answer: the third one is correct.]
How do you like "Them and us went to the dance together"? Or "Me and him went to the dance together"?
Nobody would ever say, "He gave the books to I" or "Him went to the dance." Native English speakers just wouldn't do that. It wouldn't sound right. So why does a compound make a speaker think the opposite case should be used? Why does it sound better to say "He gave the books to her and I"? It's a big mystery!
(Parenthetically, my mother's theory was that people who have only a vague idea of the rules are trying to sound more learned than they are, and somehow "I" and"he" strike them as more elegant than"me" and "him.")
My mother used to have a fit every time she would hear on TV something like "Me and the coach really get along." It should be "The coach and I really get along." (That's another problem -- technically, the pronoun "I" should be placed last in a compound, but that's more a matter of courtesy than of grammatical rule.) And who would say: "Me really get along with the coach." Nobody is that illiterate! So why turn it into objective case when a compound is involved?
As I said, this usage is becoming so ubiquitous that I suspect English may be losing the distinction between objective and nominative. English has lost most of its case structure over the centuries, so why not this? English remains an inflexional language, i.e. it uses particles -- prefixes and suffixes -- that are attached to basic words to express differences in meanings, and it also varies the roots of words for the same purpose. But English has been tending toward heavier use of word order to express types of meaning. Thus, in all of the sentences above, the meaning is perfectly clear no matter how you mangle the case use, because the word order -- the placement of words in relation to one another -- is what determines the meaning. For example, pronouns that follow a preposition are automatically perceived as being the object of that preposition.
However, the rules of case have not been abandoned yet and if you want to be seen as an educated speaker and writer of English, you'll be careful to use these pronouns according to those established rules. In speaking, discipline yourself to be aware of what you're saying. In writing, stop and think: Are the pronouns in this compound phrase being used as subject or as object? Taking a little care and thought makes all the difference!
My mother would have thanked you and her and him and me for it! She would not have thanked you and she and he and I!