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


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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Shakespeare’s “Like you like it”, part II

You may snicker at me, but I can’t help myself. eTrade just sent me one of those polished, glossy, over-produced marketing emails, informing me that:

you can diversify like never before with an E*TRADE Global Trading account.

Like never before? Do they speak English? Do they vet their junk mail? Is this supposed to be folksy (lest they sound “elitist”)?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is my earlier post on the subject.

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Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It” & my favorite grammar felony

Nothing deep today, just getting something off my chest and on the record (I heard that’s what blogs are for): It drives me nuts when people–dare I suggest that Americans are especially prone?–don’t know how (not) to use the words like and unlike.

Just to avoid the charge of snobbism, I’ll take an example from my very own (and very British) employer, The Economist, where an esteemed colleague this week let the following  slip into the sub-headline (what we call the “rubric”) of an article: Unlike in America, terrorism in Europe is often home-grown

Yuck! Pfui!

Now the exegesis, which I will also take from my esteemed employer, since we happen to have an (in)famous style guide (memorizing it may be the best investment you ever make in your life; I’m still working on it):

Under the entry for Like, Unlike, Johnny Grimmond, the Style Guide’s author, writes in his genius style:

Like and unlike govern nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses. So as in America not like in America, as I was saying, not like I was saying, as Grandma used to make them, not like Grandma used to make them, etc. English has no unas equivalent to unlike, so you must rephrase the sentence if you are tempted to write unlike in this context, unlike at Christmas, or unlike when I was a child.

If you find yourself writing She looked like she had had enough or It seemed like he was running out of puff, you should replace like with as if or as though, and you probably need the subjunctive: She looked as if she had had enough, It seemed as if he were running out of puff.

Like the hart panteth for the water brooks I pant for a revival of Shakespeare’s “Like You Like It”. I can see tense draftees relax and purr/When the sergeant barks, “Like you were.”/And don’t try to tell me that our well has been defiled by immigration;/Like goes Madison Avenue, like so goes the nation. — Ogden Nash

Fine, so what could my colleague’s rubric have said instead? The easiest re-write would have been: Europe, unlike America, often suffers home-grown terrorism.

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