I’ve gotten very familiar with the geography of my local grocery store. That’s because of the grammar mavens, with which my town is peculiarly well-stocked. There’s the lawyer who’s obsessed with the dummkopfs who use which instead of that, and another fellow—also a lawyer, come to think of it—who’s on a one-man crusade against singular they. When I glimpse either of these two on the borders of my peripheral vision, I like to be able to dash into the cereal aisle and go incognito behind a jumbo box of Shredded Wheat.
The other day, I was comparing the assorted bags of organic field greens when I saw another neighbor. I knew him only as a friendly sort, but after we exchanged pleasantries, he started in on people who say between you and I. There was no escape.
The complaint was not new to me, of course. In fact, more than a decade ago, when the BBC polled its listeners about their most annoying grammar mistakes, this one came in first. And this mistake, in its various forms—They invited my wife and I, for example—continues to rankle, at least if the people who gripe about it to me are any measure.
I can divide my reaction to between you and I into two periods: pre-Pinker and post-Pinker. The reference is to Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist, who in the 90s mounted a spirited and, to my mind, convincing defense of the usage. I first came upon it in his book The Language Instinct, but he also adumbrated it in a New Republic article that he reprints on his Web site. He gets into the issue by noting William Safire’s criticism of Bill Clinton for asking voters to “give Al Gore and I a chance to bring America back” and then brings in the grammar mavens’ almost equally despised “Me and Jennifer are going to the mall.” He observes that although both of these are common, absolutely no one would think of saying Give I a chance or Me am going to the mall. Thus, “might it not be the mavens that misunderstand English grammar, not the speakers?”
He goes on:
The mavens’ case about case rests on one assumption: if an entire conjunction phrase has a grammatical feature like subject case, every word inside that phrase has to have that grammatical feature, too. But that is just false.
Jennifer is singular; you say Jennifer is, not Jennifer are. The pronoun She is singular; you say She is, not She are. But the conjunction She and Jennifer is not singular, it’s plural; you say She and Jennifer are, not She and Jennifer is. So a conjunction can have a different grammatical number from the pronouns inside it. Why, then, must it have the same grammatical case as the pronouns inside it? The answer is that it need not. A conjunction is just not grammatically equivalent to any of its parts. If John and Marsha met, it does not mean that John met and that Marsha met. If voters give Clinton and Gore a chance, they are not giving Gore his own chance, added on to the chance they are giving Clinton; they are giving the entire ticket a chance. So just because Al Gore and I is an object that requires object case, it does not mean that I is an object that requires object case.
I tried to explain all that to my salad aisle buddy, stressing, as I usually do, the unit-ness of you and I and Al Gore and I. If the action described by the verb was performed separately on the objects, it would be a different story: The candidate rang the doorbells of my neighbor and [of] me. He had an uncertain look in his eyes; I was on my way to convincing him.
But then I overreached, as usual.
“Think about The King and I,” I said. “You would never say, ‘I’m going to see The King and Me,’ would you? Al Gore and I is the same kind of unit.”
I had the familiar feeling of losing him. “That’s different,” he said.
“Yes, it’s different,” I countered. “But only a little different.”
But he was already on his way to the checkout.