Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Between you and I, me don't know grammar

My BMW
I blame pop music, or possibly people’s vague feeling that they say ‘me’ too often when they mean ‘I’, as when my mother used to scold me for saying, “It’s me,” when I should have said, “It is I.” I still say, “It’s me,” and I drive a BMW. My mother, on the other hand, is dead, which only goes to show that I can do what I sodding well want with the language and woe betide anyone who tries to stop me.

My mother (left). Point proved, I think
But the truth is that far too many people are saying and writing ‘between you and I’ and ‘than you or I’, or similar phrases. This is not good style and nor is it poor style. It’s wrong.

Take Polly Toynbee, a contentious writer for The Guardian on social issues:
Oiks from council estates … are all being paid too much. Even more than you or I in the well-paid commentariat, for God’s sake! 
Yes, the well-enough-paid commentariat to write properly.

Or how about Jon Anderson, whose lyrics for Yes are unashamedly pretentious (“Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources / Cashed amid fusions of wonder, in moments hardly seen forgotten”) and therefore mark him out as someone who is very careful about language and probably a few other things as well. Yes, I know the band was trying to be a bit more down-to-earth in 1983 than in the days of Tales From Topographic Oceans, but that’s not a good enough reason to write:
One difference between you and I 
Your heart is inside your head
We might forgive songwriters: sometimes they need a rhyme, and if ‘me’ doesn’t work then ‘I’ will have to do. The rules on what can and can’t be rhymed were broken the day Lemmy, in his Hawkwind days, rhymed ‘marathon’ with ‘parallelogram’. But look at Neil Peart of Rush, an obsessively careful lyricist, making a similar mistake in a couplet that ironically gives a clue on how to get it right:
Just between us, I think it’s time for us to realize
The spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow

Peart doesn’t have the excuse of needing a rhyme. ‘Me’ would fit the metre of the song perfectly well, but he’s got it wrong and his singer Geddy Lee has now had to get it wrong on stage every night for the past 31 years. It hasn’t stopped me buying their albums, but I always skip Peart’s drum solos in protest. That, and the fact that I hate drum solos.

Many people seem to think that the rule on cases only applies when the pronoun immediately follows the preposition (or verb, or whatever), as when a highly literate friend of mine wrote an email to me saying, “Count John and I in,” and justified it by saying, “I said John and I in, not me and John.” She accepted the correction eventually. We're even still on speaking terms, although John turned out to be an ordinary bloke and not a count at all.

The preposition ‘between’ takes the accusative case (as does the conjunctive participle ‘than’), which is why Peart wrote “between us” in the preceding line, not “between we”. You wouldn’t write “between I and she” and nor would Neil Peart, who, despite being a rock star and a drummer, has been scientifically proven to be literate with an IQ in at least triple figures.

Moral: The word ‘and’ does not break the link with the preposition or verb on which a pronoun depends. It’s ‘between you and me’. Take heed from my mother and don’t get it wrong again.

5 comments:

  1. I sorta agree with you.
    However[notice the omission of "but".] I wonder if it's quite that concrete a rule.
    English is probably [no - certainly] the fastest growing language in the world. Different cultures being different facets to the tongue. As we are in a world of "instant media" it is also quite clear that our traditions change.
    As a storyteller, I believe it is my duty to tell those stories in ways that everyone can enjoy and understand. If I get myself all hung up on special "rules", am I doing my readers a disfavor?
    When I do a dictionary/grammar scan, I often encounter those cute little notices of "passive grammar" or "split infinitives" or other such stuff. I don't ignore them, in fact some of them make me go back and take a better look at what I wrote. But, others simply don't seem to match current usages.

    My conscience and me are gettin' along just fine on mosta the stuff I write. :):)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Can I edit the little goofs in that post?

    ReplyDelete
  3. No, you can't edit them (blame Blogger, not me). That said, I read your novel excerpts on your blog and, while I'm no literary critic, I've got to say that there's nothing wrong with how you put your prose together.

    Rules of language exist but the purpose of language is always to communicate. As George Orwell said, "Break any rule rather than say anything barbarous." Whatever is the clearest way to get your idea across to your readers is ALWAYS the right way.

    PS, I wonder if you were one of the cabbies who took me and my daughters round Las Vegas in 2008. Unlikely, I suppose, but it's a nice thought.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The easiest way of checking it's right? Take out the other person.

    "John and I are going to the shops" - take out "John and". Does it still make sense? "I am going to the shops" - yes.

    "John and me are going ..." "Me am going..." no it doesn't: it's wrong.

    :-) I've always found it easier to remember it that way. I doubt you need to be told that, but it might be easier for future readers who don't understand prepositions and accusative cases.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It is important to know about rules in using apostrophes in names so that you will not have a hard time in writing. so you must learn how to use it.

    ReplyDelete