The He Stands Alone

slipperyYou heard it here first. For years, now, language mavens have been discussing the creep of the nominative pronoun in constructions calling for the objective case. Although voices have been raised in favor of “hypercorrection” as an explanation for this deviance, they have been mostly overwhelmed by explanations that rely on coordinate constructions. But I’m here to tell you that we have passed through the wall.

Let’s back up. Initially the concern was focused on phrases like Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “My father John and my mother Moira … migrated to this country with my sister and I.” The “rule of prestigious deviance,” according to some, allowed for the use of the nominative (“I”) for the second member of a coordinate construction. According to this theory, perfectly rational speakers of English would say “with my sister and I” or “with her and I,” but they would never say “with I.” This locution, therefore, was not so much a hypercorrection stemming from years of scolding over sentences like “Me and him robbed a bank,” as a rhetorical choice.

Next came phrases like Mitt Romney’s saying of Newt Gingrich, “I like he and Callista.” Once again, some floated the notion of hypercorrection, but we still had a coordinate construction: “I like Callista and he” had established its place, and reversing the order of the coordinated objects didn’t seem that much of a stretch.

Next—sticking with politicians—came Colin Powell’s recent testament of support for President Obama: “I’ll be voting for he and for Vice President Joe Biden.” Here we have two “for”s, so, strictly speaking, “he” and “VP Joe Biden” are not coordinated objects. But there remains coordination, allowing one commenter to the Language Log post in which this example appeared to write, “No matter the history, it seems clear that both patterns are instances of the coordination breaking the connection between the large-scale position of the pronoun and its form, and something else moving in to take over the decision making in those cases.”

Which brings us to this week. Although I’ve given examples from public figures, my attention on a daily basis goes to my students. And for reasons I haven’t investigated, this past week I received two student stories with new examples of the nominative pronoun used in the objective position. The first wrote, “I didn’t think I was in love with he, but I couldn’t be sure.” The second wrote, “For they, it wasn’t that important.” No coordinator in either example. And then, at a social gathering, I overheard a woman say, “She gave it to I—I mean to me—oh, I don’t know any more.”

Feels a little like Alice with the Mad Hatter, doesn’t it?

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

Well, all right, not quite the same. But as I’ve said before, people want rules. Students, for instance, take notice when they start reading “to the Senator and I” in the newspaper, and when “with she and her brother” receives tacit approval from writing instructors. They may even notice that “I like he and she” has started sounding OK. A little time passes, and they begin to doubt whether me, him, us, and them ever were correct to say in a predicate construction or prepositional phrase. So they write the transitive verb or the preposition, and then they’re a bit stumped. Then gingerly, doubting themselves, they pass through the wall . . . to “with he.”

The task before linguists, I assume, is to note this transition, possibly to name it. The task for professors who teach writing (which is almost all professors) is to guide our students toward usage that will be considered acceptable in the fields where they will try to flourish. The students are behaving reasonably, inferring from a slipping set of usages where the trend is heading. But writing, “This experience was important for I” will not cut it in a cover letter. Draw the line in the sand for me! the students beg us. So where do we draw it, and when do we let the tide wash it away?


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