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:
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.
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: