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Between you and I

Posted: Mon Oct 07, 2019 11:36 pm
by Phil White
In a recent thread, I intimated that I was uncertain as to the "grammaticality" of "between you and I". If anyone was reading that thread, it may have come as a surprise that I would even consider "between you and I" as being even remotely grammatical.

Let me explain. Firstly, language - including grammar - changes over time. Words and grammatical constructs come and go. And as we get older, we become more aware of the changes, particularly as they are happening extremely rapidly in our Internet age. It is only a few generations ago that the distinct second person singular pronouns "thou" and "thee" were in common use, particularly in rural dialects. Indeed, they still survive in some northern dialects to this day. But in standard English, they have gone. Conversely, the emergence of "yous" as a second person plural pronoun in some dialects (in America, Britain and Australia to my knowledge) is relatively recent. I have found it hard to trace any evidence of it prior to the 19th century. But nowadays it is pretty well ubiquitous around Merseyside, even among speakers with relatively weak accents and dialects.

Secondly, the phrase "between you and I" is clearly ungrammatical if one takes the two pronouns individually. A pronoun following a preposition always takes the objective form ("to me", "from her", "above him", "under us", "by them"). However, if you understand "you and I" as a fixed phrase meaning "we", it has, for many people, become invariable between the subjective form ("you and I should meet up next week") and the objective form ("it would be good if he got a card from you and I"). In the same way that "you" is invariable between the subjective and objective forms, the complex pronoun "you and I" is also invariable.

This would mean that "you and I" is a single, invariable pronoun that has entered the language over the past few generations and, if the argument has any traction, the phrase "between you and I" would be grammatical.

And I would argue that, for many people, that is precisely the case. It is grammatical and is in alignment with at least one similar construction (second person pronouns).

Of course, the actual reason for the emergence of "between you and I" and the invariability of "you and I" is due to the endless drilling we had as children that it is polite to mention the person you are addressing before you mention yourself. In other words, it is correct to say "you and I" (rather than "I and you"). The information that has stuck is that "you and I" is right (and hence "you and me" must be wrong).

No. I am not suggesting that we should all start using "between you and I" (it sends shivers down my spine). But I am suggesting that it has a perfectly valid grammaticality. For many, it is just plain wrong and for others it is right because they were taught to be polite (my mother always used it and I could never rid her of the notion that it was "proper" - the fact that I am a competent linguist with a degree in English counted for nothing against the remembered words of her primary school teacher: "always use 'you and I'"). And my mother is in good company. The earliest examples of "between you and I" that I could find were from the early 19th century - from Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith and John Vanburgh...

Grammar is not set in stone, and never has been. Indeed, I doubt that it is even set in semolina pudding. Grammar books have always been written by people of certain social and educational backgrounds and reflect the language that they and their peers speak. They rarely, if ever, reflect the way that ordinary folks speak and have always been used to demonize any dialects and speech forms that depart from those spoken for years in the establishments of higher education.

When two people communicate fluently with each other, it is because they share a common stock of words and arrange them according to grammatical conventions that they also share. The fact that I do not share identical grammatical conventions does not make their speech ungrammatical, however well educated I and poorly educated they may be.

The point of all that? Simply this: Beware the notion of grammaticality; it is not universal.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 5:15 am
by Erik_Kowal
Nicely put.

Your perception that "you and I" has become an invariant phrase in the minds of many people reminds me of something I have noticed quite a lot of Americans doing when they wish to encourage their readers to associate their own views with the (ostensibly) lofty aspirations enumerated in the US Constitution.

Specifically, they treat the first phrase in the opening sentence of that document — "we the people" — with similar deference, failing to put it in the object case when grammatical convention suggests they should be doing so.

(Here's the complete sentence: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.")

I googled my way to a few examples of this phenomenon on the Web:

"It’s time for we the people to take back our government" (instead of "It’s time for us the people to take back our government").

It’s time for We the People to march to demand accountability – our democracy and values are at stake.

"It's time for we the people to stand up".

For these writers, it's as though something essential would be lost by replacing 'we' in their sentences with the grammatically conventional 'us'.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 10:51 am
by Phil White
Nice example of something similar, Erik. There are a number of phenomena related to your example that, while being deemed ungrammatical by most, have a grammatical logic that makes them difficult to argue against. When I get some more time again, I shall take a stab at some of them.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 4:44 pm
by Ken Greenwald
Phil and Erik,

I am weak in this area and having nothing to add, but I would like to thank you both for a most interesting and illuminating discussion.

Ken - October 8, 2019

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 8:38 pm
by Phil White
Ken, you are an extremely fluent, engaging and very communicative writer of English. Your understanding of grammar is equally as strong as Stephen Pinker's, mine or anyone else's. "Weak" is not a fair description.

Some further thoughts, first of all about Erik's example. At first, I was tempted to think that there is good grammatical motivation for the specific structure you quote, namely "... time for we the people to ...". It immediately struck me that there is a sense that "we the people" is the agent, if not the grammatical subject, of the non-finite verb that follows the expression. Who is it that should be "standing up"? We the people. Of course, non-finite verbs do not have grammatical subjects - that is very much a defining feature of a non-finite verb. But they have notional agents, and agents generally form the subjects of active statements in English ("we the people will rise"). From that perspective, the subjective case does not seem unnatural, overriding the objective case that would normally be needed after "for". But then I thought about it again and realized that, by that reasoning, something like "the time has come for I to leave" should also sound plausible. But it doesn't. I cannot think of examples of single pronouns in that position that sound anything other than wrong in the subjective case. Which confirms that you are absolutely right, namely that "we the people" is acting as an invariable phrase. Compare also something like "it is time for Harry and I to go". Again, we have the invariability of the "x and I" construct. On the other hand, if you google for other uses of "we the people" following prepositions, you will often come across things like "treason against 'We the People'". This use of inverted commas and capitalization indicates that people are entirely aware of the fact that the phrase is invariant and needs the inverted commas to preclude the use of the objective "us the people".

The (spurious?) distinction between idiomaticity and grammaticality is evidenced by another idiom that has been creeping into the UK over the past few years. I believe that, like Atlantic storms, it has made its way eastward to our shores. I speak of "as far as".

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are familiar with the use of this phrase as a conjunction:

"As far as work is concerned, I am happy enough where I am."
"As far as the colour goes, I really don't mind."

But over the past few years, I have been hearing "as far as" being used as a preposition with the meaning "regarding":

"As far as a faster car, I don't need one."

At first, I thought the construct was a mere lapse on the part of the speaker, but not so. It is becoming extremely widespread extremely quickly. It is not a mistake or a lapse (much as I dislike it and wish it were). It is a new animal in the bestiary of English grammar. It betokens not the end of educational standards, nor the demise of Western civilization. It is evolution. Get over it! It is widespread and it is idiomatic, so it is correct - however much it makes your toes curl. So is it grammatical? Of course it bloody is!

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 10:46 pm
by Erik_Kowal
I too have noticed that "as far as" phenomenon, and it grates on me as well. But you're right — it doesn't sound to me as though the majority of the people who use that construction sense that it's incomplete or defective in some way, and as you say, it is now a de facto acceptable usage (maybe it will even become the norm). Certainly, I hear people of all educational levels using it when I turn on the radio or TV.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Tue Oct 08, 2019 11:20 pm
by Phil White
Here's one for you to try yourselves - or just to get upset about: "sooner than later".

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Wed Oct 09, 2019 2:58 am
by Erik_Kowal
It has just occurred to me that the "as far as" phenomenon may partly be the result of interference from (or confusion with) the similar-seeming construction "as for". Compare, for instance:

"As far as a faster car {is concerned / goes}, I don't need one."

"As far as a faster car, I don't need one."

"As for a faster car, I don't need one."

But why it should have taken off the way it has done recently is rather a mystery. I can only surmise that some particularly prominent celebrities or media outlets who have habitually used it have increased its exposure to such an extent that it has been propelled into the mainstream.


Yeah, "sooner than later"... Maybe that has become established because the expression "sooner rather than later" is so familiar that the 'rather' can be elided without the intended meaning of what remains being misunderstood, despite its logical absurdity.

Possibly the fact that the words 'sooner' and 'later' are heavily stressed in "sooner rather than later", whereas the 'rather than' component tends to be little more than a rapid guttural mumble with most speakers — including me — has also contributed to the 'rather' getting dropped.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Wed Oct 09, 2019 4:31 am
by trolley
It's possible that the annoying phrase "sooner than later" came about as a result of the similar sounding set phrase "sooner or later". Every time someone tells me that they need or want something from me sooner than later, I imagine I have all the time in the world. It doesn't matter when I get around to will always be sooner than later...

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Wed Oct 09, 2019 8:34 am
by Phil White
Erik_Kowal wrote: Wed Oct 09, 2019 2:58 am It has just occurred to me that the "as far as" phenomenon may partly be the result of interference from (or confusion with) the similar-seeming construction "as for".
Good point. That would at least provide some kind of anchor point within standard grammar conventions that would explain why people have felt comfortable about it.

As trolley points out, however, the problem with "sooner than later" is less of a grammatical nature and rather one of semantics. It makes no semantic sense, irrespective of the grammar. But that is often the case with established idioms.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Sat Oct 12, 2019 9:42 pm
by gdwdwrkr
Users of "sooner than later" could care less.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Sat Oct 12, 2019 10:31 pm
by Phil White
Quite so, James! That one has also been circling round my mind since I started this thread.

Re: Between you and I

Posted: Sun Oct 13, 2019 12:27 pm
by gdwdwrkr
Yes, and there is always. as just seen on "the History Blog" site, " The finders had turned them into the museum", in which four silver coins are "turned into" a museum. The magic continues.