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Obama and I; Obama and me; Obama and … myself?

800px-barack_and_michelle_

Psst, are they cheering you and me or you and I?

So-and-so “graciously invited Michelle and I,” he says. “The main disagreement with John and I,” he begins. Obama, Obama. You and I need to have a word. (But which one?)

All of you know by now that I’m a lover of, yes, Obama, but also of language, words and style. On the spectrum between grammar fundamentalists and libertines, I am closer to the fundamentalists (in this and only this in life!).

So I side with Naomi Baron, a linguist whom I quoted in this story in The Economist decrying the “linguistic whateverism” that is taking over (American) culture. It would make snobs out of people who care about the difference between who’s and whose, it’s and its, I and me, like and as, and so forth.

And so we come to Obama. First–still speaking about grammar–he is of course vastly preferable to the alternative. (Check out these speech diagrams comparing Obama and Palin.) And even though he entered his presidency with a grammatical stumble, that was John Roberts’ fault, not his. (Steven Pinker called it “blowback” for Roberts’ fundamentalism, since the chief justice apparently could not bring himself to “split the verb” and thus mangled the oath of office.)

But Obama is no grammar saint either. Bloggers have been pointing it out, and now Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, the authors of a forthcoming book about language, are opining about it in the New York Times.

One issue is subjects and objects; another is pomposity and naturalness. In turn:

I object

Nobody could possibly invite “Michelle and he” but quite a lot of people would love to invite “Michelle and him“. That is because the inviter is the subject and first couple are the objects (direct, in this case).

Nor could anybody give a fistbump to “Michelle and he”, although I would personally love to give one to “Michelle and him”. In this case the object is indirect (the fistbump being the direct object), but English doesn’t distinguish.

Oh puhleeze

Americans increasingly don’t see it that way, of course. To them you say the word me (him, her, them) whenever you’re being informal and the word I (he, she, they) whenever you’re being formal. Now that is pompous. It’s like eating a hamburger with fork and knife. It’s overcompensating, because a toff is watching.

Saying myself is not the answer, by the way. I cannot invite “Michelle and himself”, only “Michelle and him.” But, he could invite himself, although he is unlikely to be so presumptuous.

But it’s me

That brings us to the old chestnut: Which is correct: It’s me or It’s I?

The problem here is that the is is not an action verb but a linking verb.It is being linked to me or I, but neither it nor I are obviously the subject or object. So let’s see how other languages deal with the problem:

C’est moi. OK, the French think it should be it’s me.

Es bin ich. Oops, the Germans think it should be it am I.

Damn foreigners. They’re Old Europe anyway.

So the answer is that it doesn’t matter. And since there is the puhleeze factor to consider, I lobby for it’s me.

Now, I did say that is is not an action verb. There is of course one exception to that rule:


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26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jonathan #

    I’m going to have to say: Whatever!

    OK, so they are hypercorrections. But at some point, if people like Obama are using it, then they have become part of the lexicon.

    I spent three years working with the Princeton Review teaching high schoolers this rule and the linking verb debacle, as it’s tested on the SAT. Almost none understood it then and I doubt many remember it now. Why waste the time fighting the change?

    Also, I don’t think that the I/me difference is split upon lines of formality. ‘I’ is often used when there are two subjects, and in formal contexts the 1st person pronoun is supposed to come second. This puts distance between the pronoun and the verb making the mistake much easier. Also the rule has been confused to mean that whenever the 1st person is second in two items it should be I superseding the pronoun case rule.

    February 24, 2009
    • kuldeep #

      i agree with you

      August 25, 2009
  2. Mr. Crotchety #

    Super heroes say, “it is I!” Loser boyfriends say, “it’s me,” on the telephone. Dastardly criminals say, “it was I!” People with indigestion say, “it was me.”

    If ever asked, I almost always get my grammar questions correct. I know how to write English, I just don’t. Why is this? My current theory is that I’m always editing – and trying to say just one more thing. The moment I figure out how to say something, I want to go back and add more value. I’ve noticed at the HB that my ‘typos’ are the result of over editing. I change tenses, plurals and possessives at the last second. I don’t re-write or edit completely. I become blinded by my enthusiasm. I do this as I speak, too.

    Is there a correlation between someone being a proper talker and being a proper writer? I noticed that while listening to your podcast, you’re a good talker; no hemming, no hawing. I bet Charles Dickens was a good talker. Is it necessary to be a proper talker to be a Great Story Teller?

    Speaking of Great Story Tellers and ‘it’s me,’ can we add songwriters to the list of candidates for Greatest Story Teller? (Todd Rundgren says, “Hello, it’s me…” Pathetic, really).
    Paul Simon: “Mama Pajama rolled out of bed and went to the police station…”
    Elvis Costello: “She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake…”
    This could be a separate category of Great Story Teller.

    February 24, 2009
  3. Vincent #

    The grammar fundamentalists may have shot themselves (ourselves?) in the foot here. For years, the beleaguered speakers of the English language have been warned against “Me and Billy went running” and “Jenny and me saw a movie.” It must have seemed the easiest strategy simply to always say “and I.”

    I’m sure I make this mistake occasionally, especially in conversation. The only easy way I know to avoid involves word order, as Jonathan pointed out. The closer the preposition to the verb, the easier: had Obama attempted to say “graciously invited I and Michelle,” he would have immediately noticed the mistake and corrected it. Similarly, “Billy and me ran” sounds worse than “Me and Billy ran.”

    You and I got you and me into this mess, I’m afraid. Attention to grammar is good, but I’ll take someone with a basic understanding of its structure over someone who’s memorized all the rules any day.

    February 24, 2009
  4. Well, the Hannibal Blog drifts out of the Adriatic for a bit and into my sea, the one I have been teaching for a century it seems.

    The predicate nominative is one of my best lectures…( I even sing, as if I were Franco Nero) C’est Moi and then proceed to journey off task into the land of Camelot. Eighteen year olds, only focused on the SAT and their scores, stare blankly back, unfamiliar with the King Arthur stories, Lancelot, Guinevere, and predicate nominatives.

    The scene continues…

    And when the guy you are scamming on, calls you on the phone, and says, Is Ling Ling there? what do you say??? wink…wink…Do you say, This is her or this is she?

    Mrs. Sabraw, we don’t call on the phone anymore. We text.

    Ahhhh…yes….OK, let’s cut the entertainment and just get to the point.
    On the SAT, you use a subject pronoun in the subject (duh), and object pronoun in the object (duh), an object pronoun in a prepositional phrase, and when the subject is the same person or thing as the object (and thus a predicate nominative), you use a subject pronoun. It is I. This is she……..get it??

    No? You don’t get it? OK, Let me tell you about one of my students from Bulgaria who escaped the communists…she was a big woman….and when I met her in my ESL class, she spoke not one word of English. One day….

    See, storytelling is the only way to teach grammar!

    February 25, 2009
  5. “Storytelling is the only way to teach grammar….”: Cheri has cut through the pedantic fog and clarified the bigger point (of one of the other threads on the Hannibal Blog) again.

    I see I’m in the company of readers who have thought about this a lot. I’m not surprised.

    Jonathan: By saying “Whatever!” you are enlisting in the ranks of Naomi Baron’s “whateverists”, am I correct? You’re probably in the majority by now, but I’m just not ready yet. Where do you draw the line? “Who’s” and “whose”, “good” and “well”, … where? Language is the only toolkit we have (at least in written communication), so I think it makes sense to keep it in good order. Also, as a student of Arabic (which, I’m told, has six or so cases?), you probably appreciate what grammar can add to beauty better than the rest of us, no?

    Just to be clear, guys: I’m not arguing for pedantry. I split infinitives, OK? What I’m arguing in favor of is knowing and appreciating language, and cultivating it. Not slavish adherence to rules, but conscious usage. In many cases, wrong grammar is the result of somebody not caring. Well, start caring! That’s all.

    Mr Crotchety: Thanks for listening to the podcasts. (Done on Skype, robotic voice and all). I think I speak and write exactly the same way.

    Unfortunately, I’m not the ideal analyst of song lyrics, but they do seem to be ideal storytelling media. Do i sense another guest post in the making?

    February 25, 2009
  6. Jonathan #

    I think I’m pretty firmly in the whateverists camp. It’s nearly impossible for us, individually or collectively, to fight the tide of linguistic change. Why waste the effort? If the message is clear I won’t complain.

    *But* As a writer or speaker, I think the additional standard of ‘style not interfering with content’ could be applied, meaning that in writing for a blog of educated readers, the rules might still apply to ‘you and me’.

    In Arabic, grammar is a double edged sword, sharp enough to have cleaved the language in two. On one hand, there is the formal Arabic called فصحى Fusha, spoken in the news and official reports. I will simply say that its grammar is complex and generally inflexible. On the other there are the colloquial dialects عاميات used for everyday conversation, vastly simplified and incredibly fluid. The Fusha and the dialects are so far apart that high school students in Beirut learn Fusha as a foreign language.

    This is especially difficult for a language learner. We learn Fusha first with all its rules and vocabulary, but no Arab uses Fusha in anything but very formal situations. Even educated Saudis in Spokane or Seattle have difficulty speaking in Fusha with me, even when they understand what I’m saying easily. In fact many attribute the difficulty in learning Arabic for foreigners to this ‘diglossic’ situation.

    February 25, 2009
  7. Mr. Crotchety #

    Jonathan: I spoke Darija when I worked in Morocco. I always describe this as like newscast Arabic, but without vowel sounds. I’ve tried to impress people by describing Fusha (without actually knowing Fusha). It has been so long ago that I’ve begun to doubt it. I’m glad the story still holds up.

    AK: no more guest posts until Dr. Tatiana does one about DNA. If we don’t understand Darwin or genetics, it must be her fault for not returning our phone calls (or saying anything about the flowers that we sent (or noticing the new shirt I’m wearing today)). Not ours.

    February 25, 2009
  8. I request a post on selecting the song that best reflects the highest traditions of good story-telling. I vote in the alternative for the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree by Arlo Guthrie or for you country folk, the Tennessee Stud by Doc Watson. Two classics for sure.

    (Dylan probably has several that are candidates)

    Steve B.

    February 25, 2009
    • Oh boy, Steve, I may have to outsource that one to sablocklaw.blogspot.com
      I’m rather out of my depth here….
      Then again, I’m sure Mr Crotchety could just snap his fingers and have it there faster than a Senryu…

      February 25, 2009
  9. @Jonathan: I was told once that Syrian Arabic is the equivalent of Ohioan American, Touraine French or Hanoverian German–ie, the most neutral. I’m guessing that refers to the dialect not the Fusha. Is that true?

    February 25, 2009
  10. Phillip S Phogg #

    I have the feeling that people of the educated class 100, 200, 300 years ago had, in their drawing rooms while sipping port, similar discussions about the misuse of language.

    The old would have castigated the young for saying “you” instead of “thou”, seeing it as adumbrating the fall of civilisation.

    February 26, 2009
  11. Phillip S Phogg #

    Since this forum is about English (the language, not the people), I’d like to raise the issue of gender pronouns.

    Consider the following, which I gleaned from another blog: “………it is also likely that the more individuated a person is, the more likely that s/he will attract people and even followers or disciples……..”.

    Using “s/he” is clumsy, as is “he/she”. I might have written “they”, rather than “s/he”. Still, this would have been unsatisfactory for obvious reasons.

    How would the Economist have written it?

    February 26, 2009
  12. The Economist would have written it: “the more individuated a person is, the more likely that he will attract…”
    “S/he” is American political correctness gone berserk, and “they” is worse: an escape into an inappropriate plural in order to be politically correct without admitting it.

    If, of course, the writer had available to him (or her ;)) a more specific context, he might have said “the more individuated a man is” or “the more individuated a woman is”.

    Incidentally, nobody is predicting the “fall of civilization” (which would, as Gandhi said, be a great idea–the civilization, not the fall). I am a great fan of this fantastic book on the evolution of English and enthusiastically for pidgins and creoles and so forth.

    Since you mention the example of “you” and “thou”, it is actually more interesting than you let on: “Thou” was the informal address (= the German Du, French Tu) and “You” the formal (the German Sie, French Vous). So it is especially curious that during that phase of simplification in English the formal won out….

    February 26, 2009
  13. Jonathan #

    Was that person a Syrian?

    I’ve heard that Syrian or Saudi is closest to Fusha, but it just depends on who you ask.

    February 28, 2009
  14. Re Jonathon’s earliest “whatever” comment, I have to disagree. He wrote “if people like Obama are using it, then they have become part of the lexicon.” The White House pulpit is bullish–but hardly prescriptive–when it comes to language usage. Our current president can read a speech rather well, and he uses some of the same speaking cadences that his former minister of 20 years, Rev. Wright, employs, but Mr. Obama’s misuse “I” for the objective “me” doesn’t pass muster with me.

    Mr. Obama’s immediate predecessor, the rhetorically-challenged Mr. Bush, would be the first to admit that we should not emulate his mangling of English; he has, in fact, acknowledged as much in some interviews, and has stated that his wife–a former librarian–often cringes when he makes off-the-cuff remarks in public.

    Both presidents are bright men and well-degreed: Andover/Yale/Harvard Business; Occidental-transferred-to-Columbia/Harvard Law. And both men need improvement when making unscripted remarks. So do I, for that matter.

    March 1, 2009
  15. Excellent point, Blinkeredthinker. At last, I have an ally in pedantry! ;)

    March 2, 2009
  16. Thanks for the link to this post, Andreas. Like I was saying, I agree with you. ;)

    But here’s the thing that struck me last night as I read. Reading a post written two and half years ago, there’s nothing strange about that. But reading these old comment sections, with comments by people I sort of know, is some kind of freaky wax museum of conversation.

    There you all are, sitting in the parlor, covered with two and half years of dust. Mr. Phogg with his tea cup raised half way to his lips; you, Andreas, still winking at Blinkeredthinker. Now, hit the play button, blow off the dust, and the conversation rolls.

    When I grow disenchanted with blogging (Blogging, bah! Humbug!), perhaps, Andreas, you will agree to play Jacob Marley to my Scrooge, and take me back to the ghost of Hannibal Blog past, some happy post from yesteryear where I see my younger, idealistic commenting self.

    September 6, 2011
    • “When I grow disenchanted with blogging (Blogging, bah! Humbug!), perhaps, Andreas, you will agree to play Jacob Marley to my Scrooge, and take me back to the ghost of Hannibal Blog past, some happy post from yesteryear where I see my younger, idealistic commenting self.”

      Oh dear, disenchanted you do seem to be with that blogging thang. I’ve got plenty of ghosts from yesteryear for ya. But do share, if you can, what’s bugging you so much lately about blogging? You WANT to, but DON’T want to? (Most people just don’t, but never get to the stage of ‘disenchanted’.)

      September 6, 2011
    • “WANT to/DON’T want to” probably sums it up.

      But, hey, I see a debut novel by one of your colleagues from down at The Plant on the short list for the Man Booker prize! Go Economist! Something about Moscow and snow and dachas and nightclubs and erotic obsessions. These are a few of my favorite things.

      September 7, 2011
    • Oh wow. Who, what, where? What’s “The Plant”?

      September 7, 2011
    • The Plant: I guess this bit of ironic family humor hasn’t been embraced by the larger culture yet. We use “the plant” (images of smoke stacks, assembly lines, and guys punching the clock) when referring to ivy-covered academic institutions, high-powered law firms and other tony places of white-collar employment. Here: the Economist.

      Anyway, a certain A.D. Miller (you know, only the toughest guys down at The Plant go by their initials) has written a novel about Russia called “Snowdrops”. It’s a contender for the Man Booker prize. Maybe I’ll write about it on my blog. :)

      September 7, 2011
    • @Jenny – To read a novel about Russia could mean anything. Woody Allen once said, “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

      So, when reading “Snowdrops” you might best read it slower than Woody Allen did “War and Peace”.

      September 7, 2011
    • Philippe, that’s a classic bit of Woody Allen! I adore him. I urge you to watch his send-up of Russian literature “Love and Death” (from the early, goofy Woody Allen period), if you haven’t already. Diane Keaton at her most hilarious. She was no slouch either.

      Last year’s Man Booker prize went to Harold Jacobson for “The Finkler Question”. (Didn’t I try to get you to read it?) A memorable scene in the book takes place in a hotel cafe, where the oldest of the three heroes sees a Russian couple at the next table, and thinks to himself that the woman must be a prostitute. After all, what other kinds of relationships to Russians have?

      Now, if “Snowdrops” wins the prize this year, it will be (for me) as if we pick up that very thread. Evidently “Snowdrops” has a femme fatale named Masha. Get out! A mysterious and dangerous Russian beauty? I’m just hoping she has twin sister named Dasha. Or she will, in my parody. :)

      Seriously, though. I’m going to read it. And at a moderate pace.

      September 8, 2011
    • Yeah, rah rah, A.D. Miller!

      Yours, A.A.

      September 8, 2011

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