Reviews | You and i have to talk

Someone tasked with documenting the workings of English grammar who was not at all familiar with the language would find this pronominal usage complex, not broken. The idea that the rule is something as basic as always using the subject form as a subject and always using the object form as an object just isn’t the way modern English ever has. been talked about.

After all, when you learn other languages, do you expect them to be as polished? In French, using the subject pronoun I before or after and is not even allowed: “John and I know” is never “Jean et je sais”. In some languages, pronouns often escape perfect logic: in Russian, you don’t say “me and my wife” (oops, “my wife and me”) but “us and the wife”. And life goes on.

In my experience, insisting on this point sometimes really irritates, and sometimes even makes people angry. I remember a man in an audience I spoke to who insisted so furiously that the topic should always be expressed with I that he almost seemed to want to fight me.

But there is no need for punches here. I’m not asking that we forgo the “you and I know” form entirely. It will live forever: it is perhaps the only rule of grammar invented on the board that has become a habit so established and so rigorously controlled that it is more or less qualified as natural language (unlike “C’est moi”, which never really caught on.).

Yet this rule is, in the end, a concoction. This is one of many such rules (like saying you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition) created by people who, among other now outdated concerns, wanted English to be more like Latin, under the impression that Latin was a particularly majestic language. due to its association with a famous classical past. They were willing, but modern linguistics did not yet exist, and in terms of grammatical expertise, they were ancient naturalists compared to modern biologists.

So, if we are to learn this rule as a custom, we must also be aware that the rule, like many customs, makes no more logical sense than the fact that woody-tasting chardonnay went out of fashion after the 1990s. Namely, “you and I know” is not illogical and therefore no more a sign of sloppy thinking than saying “I’m late, right?” Is illogical because you would never say ‘I’m late’. Offbeat subject, that.

And that’s why I wrote “Did my students and I miss anything? Patience with arbitrariness can wear out. I also continue to look for woody chardonnays.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Racism awakened. “

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