Between You and I: It’s Me!

By Cyberquill 11/11/20144 Comments


The other day, CNN’s early morning weatherman explained that a particular meteorological metric (some wind speed or precipitation amount or whatever, I forget the context) “may not seem that much to you or I, but …”

I submit that he never would have said “may not seem that much to I or you,” not only to avoid coming across as an ill-mannered born-in-a-barn churl that likes to put himself first, but primarily because his linguistic sensibilities would have prevented him from tacking the I directly onto the to.

The word sequence “to I” sets a parrot cringing, not to mention a human endowed with rudimentary language faculties:

Of course you may borrow my pastry bag. Just make sure to give it back to I when you’re done decorating your cake.”

Who talks like that? Nobody. (Just because I is often correct doesn’t mean it is always correct. If it were, we might as well stand down the word me altogether … no, wait, we’ll still need it to express things like “As me and the kids watch a policeman get out of his car and go into a restaurant,” the opening of an update a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page just a few minutes ago.)

Yet for some arcane quirk of the human brain, the interposition of a few additional words between the to and the self-referential pronoun suffices to erode some people’s capacity for subject-object distinction to a point that they’ll merrily emit howlers à la “to you or I” or the infamous (and, yes, Shakespearean) “between you and I.”

If, like Steven Pinker, you feel that “between you and I” is perfectly fine because “[a] conjunction is just not grammatically equivalent to any of its parts” and “[b]y the logic of grammar, the pronoun is free to have any case it wants,” see how you feel about that logic once you’ve recast the phrase to “between I and you”—identical grammar, but now it produces that nails-on-a-chalkboard sensation, does it not?

Messrs Lennon and McCartney probably didn’t spend much time chewing their pencils over whether to call their new song “From Me to You” or “From I to You.” One of these titles sounds way too linguistically dissonant for comfort, even to a to a child. Strangely, though, it is entirely conceivable for a grownup to drop a clanger like “with love from Paul and I to you.”

Or you might hear someone say, “Jen invited my sister and I to her wedding.” Drop the sister, and the sentence comes out, “Jen invited I to her wedding.” Fat chance you’ll ever hear the latter—so then whence the lowered resistance to articulating the former?

This is not meant to devolve into a lecture on correct vs. incorrect when it comes to language, a distinction that tends to inflame emotions on a par with debates over politics, religion, or diet. After all, if “it’s me” is acceptable, why should “give I a break” be verboten? Each time, the speaker picked a wrong grammatical case for the pronoun, but who ought to be vested with the solemn authority to decree when wrong is wrong and when it isn’t?

Regardless, the much more intriguing poser is this:

Since everyone quite naturally balks at saying “to I” or “she saw I,” how come everyone does not just as naturally balk at “to you and I” and “she saw my wife and I”? Good manners aside, why does the same person that will, with nary a twinge of grammatical conscience, utter the words “between you and I” stop short of uttering “between I and you” on account of its discordant grammar?

Apparently, all it takes is a small number of intervening words like “you and” or “my wife and” in order to trick the brain into forgetting—or all of a sudden not caring anymore—that verbs like invite and see, or pronouns like to or from or between, don’t agree with I as their object, a failure of fit that remarkably ceases to grate on most ears the moment an ever so brief syntactical separation of these elements occurs.

And that’s quite remarkable indeed, given how our ingrained sense of grammar—whether conditioned into us through frequent exposure or, as Chomskyan “Universal Grammar” proponents put forth, shaped by a finite set of genetically predetermined parameters, or both—generally holds pretty firm no matter the complexity and structural landscape of a sentence. For the insertion of a mere two or three words to scramble our grammar instinct such that we’ll countenance the word I as an object—which would not happen in the absence of these few intervening words—seems pretty stunning.

To demonstrate our otherwise acute and fairly inviolable sense of which element in a sentence fulfills which function, take the following example:

The Packers are expected to blow out the Bears on Sunday.”

For sports non-aficionados, the sentence says that at a specific point in the future a particular football team from Wisconsin, called (Green Bay) Packers, will likely defeat the team from Chicago, called (Chicago) Bears.

Let’s recast the sentence just a tad:

The Packers the Bears are expected to blow out on Sunday.”

Not much has changed, except we’ve moved “the Bears” a few words to the left.

Somewhat unusual, almost poetic, as the recast version may strike us, the reader instantly groks that the prediction has reversed relative to before: now it’s the Bears that are expected to trounce the Packers, not the other way around.

Although the “The Packers” hasn’t relocated at all—it still opens the sentence—its syntactic function has shifted from being the subject to being the object, from doing the blowing out to being on the receiving end of the blowout, a shift that presents no difficulty for the reader whatsoever. (No one, I suspect, had to read either sentence more than once in order to correctly pinpoint the predicted winner in each case.)

In a declarative sentence, our intuitive sense of grammar leads us to quickly identify as the subject the noun (or a similar element, like a pronoun or a noun phrase like “our intuitive sense of grammar”) that most closely precedes the verb.

In the first example, “The Packers” most closely precedes the verb; in the second, “the Bears” most closely precedes the verb. Our language instinct tells us that whoever most closely precedes the verb is the one that’s expected to cream whomever does not most closely precede the verb. No matter how much additional information the speaker may cram in between the subject and the verb (e.g., “The Packers, without victory for decades, are expected to blow out the Bears on Sunday”), our basic instinct remains intact.

The same goes for nested sentences:

The babysitter the dog dislikes has arrived.”

This sentence conveys two pieces of information, the first riven asunder by the second:

1. The babysitter has arrived.
2. The dog dislikes the babysitter.

Here, “The babysitter” serves as both subject and object. The babysitter does the arriving and is the dog’s object of antipathy. Again, there’s no difficulty for the reader to identify the various syntactic elements, not even if some serve multiple functions simultaneously.

The fact that nobody, on even the most cursory reading of this sentence, would misunderstand it to mean that the dog has arrived and the babysitter dislikes the dog, demonstrates the human brain’s skill and efficiency in analyzing language, its syntax and grammar, in a flash.

Let’s modify the sentence thus:

The babysitter the dog dislikes have arrived.”

How long did it take you to spot the subject-verb (singular/plural) mismatch? About one split-second or less, I presume. It doesn’t matter that subject and verb are separated by three words. The human brain does not usually become desensitized to grammatical mismatches just because the mismatching elements are not positioned contiguous to one another. If “The babysitter have arrived” jars you, then “The babysitter the dog dislikes have arrived”—or, for that matter, “The babysitter whom the dog dislikes and whose throat it would surely relish to bury its fangs into have arrived”—will jar you no less.

All the more puzzling is it, to return to an earlier example, that although the verb-object mismatch in “Jen invited I to her wedding” grates on virtually everyone, this grating effect weakens significantly, or disappears altogether, when we expand the sentence to “Jen invited my sister and I to her wedding.” Inexplicably, the intercalation of the three words “my sister and” atrophies our resistance to the obvious mismatch in a way that “the dog dislikes” in the grammar-challenged babysitter example (“The babysitter the dog dislikes have arrived”) does not.

Of course, this phenomenon may simply be due to our having become accustomed to hypercorrected I‘s to a point that they bother us less and less.

Yet if so, riddle me this:

How come people so readily succumb to the impulse to hypercorrect me to I only when the hypercorrected I stands removed from the verb or preposition by at least two intervening words (“invited my sister and I” … “between you and I”) but rarely, if ever, when it immediately follows either (“Jen invited I to the wedding” … “between I and you” … “please give I back my pastry bag as soon as you’re done with the cake”)?

Do you have an explanation?


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  • Richard

    Some parents may correct their children at the outset while others do not.

    Babies take time to identify themselves, so perhaps they discover the vocative first, then the genitive, the dative and the ablative and only finally the nominative.

    I wonder. Who is “me”? What am I? Some of us have problems with those questions, even into our dotage.

    • Cyberquill

      For native German speakers, grammatical cases are second nature.

      English speakers, by contrast, employ some inscrutable system for substituting the proper case for a wrong one sometimes but not other times. They’ll say “it’s me” but, oddly, never “what am me?”

      They’ll commonly say things like “Me and my kids watch a policeman get out of his car,” but I’ve never heard anyone say “Me love ice cream.” No difference grammatically. So what is the difference?

  • Richard

    The privileged discover the accusative at the same time as the nominative.

    It’s the rich what gets the pleasure and the poor what gets the blame.

    • Cyberquill

      Either way, it is me what gets the last word. You hear I?

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