Me, my wife and I

Should you say ‘me and my wife went to the party’ or ‘my wife and I went to the party?’ 

Most people who are likely to care at all about this kind of thing will tell you that ‘my wife and I’ is correct and anything else makes you sound uneducated or impolite. There are three reasons given for this:


1. The words ‘Me and my wife’ are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun ‘I’ . 
2. Removing words from the sentence indicates that ‘my wife and I’ is correct. 
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves. 


In this post I’m going to attempt to convince you that the pillars holding up the ‘my wife and I’ position are unsound. Most of what I will write about comes from John McWhorter‘s lexicon valley podcast (link). I would strongly recommend listening to that instead of reading this. 


Rules 

Many defenders of ‘my wife and I’ will tell you that this is a ‘rule’. You always have to be a little bit weary when someone tells you that something is a grammar ‘rule‘ because they’re often talking about arbitrary prescriptions or personal taste. This is the case with ‘my wife and I’ which is one of those ‘rules’ that people need to be taught like ‘double negatives‘. I’ve talked at length in this post about how if you need to constantly explain to native speakers that their language use is wrong, then maybe it isn’t. Also, like double negatives, other languages have no issues with ‘me and my wife’ construction. As McWhorter notes, in French ‘moi femme et je’ would not be a possible construction and the correct  ‘Ma femme et moi’ clearly has the object pronoun ‘moi‘ in the subject position. 

so without further ado, let’s have a look at those arguments. 


1. The words ‘Me and my wife’ are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun ‘I’ 

English sentences usually start with subjects. so in ‘I love you’, I is the subject. If it were the object it would change to ‘me‘ such as ‘you love me‘. The sentence ‘me and my wife went to the party’ seems to flaunt this rule because ‘me’ is in the subject position and so it should be I. 

The problem with this argument is, were it true, the sentence ‘I and my wife went to the party’ would be a perfectly proper sentence, after all, the subject is properly ‘I’. However, ‘I and my wife’ sounds a bit off to me. So is something else is going on here?


McWhorter makes the rather bold claim that ‘me’, not ‘I’ is in fact English’s subject pronoun and that I is a rather special word that is only used when there is only one subject before the verb. Therefore ‘I went to the party’ sounds OK, and ‘me and the lads went to the party’ sounds OK, but ‘I and the lads went to the party’ doesn’t sound right because there is more than one subject. I’d never heard this argument before but I’d welcome some disconfirming evidence. 


McWhorter defends his idea by noting that the sentence ‘Who did it?’ is normally answered by ‘me’. To explain why this is a problem for the ‘my wife and I’ crowd I need to explain a bit of grammar. 

Who did it?’ is what is know as a ‘subject question‘ because the question word ‘who‘ is replacing the subject word of the sentence and so the answer would be the subject of the sentence. It might be ‘John did it’ for instance. This is in contrast to an object question like ‘What did John eat’. You can’t answer this by simply swapping out the ‘what’ with the answer (*pizza did John eat’). 


The answer to ‘who did it’ should therefore be ‘I’ because it’s the subject of the sentence. However people don’t say that. They say ‘me’. So ‘me’, McWhorter argues, seems to be acting as the subject here. You could, I suppose, try to make the case that this is an abbreviated form of ‘It was me’  but this just seems like convenient hand-waving to me.  Besides, the ‘my wife and I’ crowd would surely also insist on ‘It was I‘, not ‘it was me’. 


2. Removing a word will indicate whether the sentence is correct. 


A second pillar of the argument is that If we remove ‘my wife’ from the sentence ‘me and my wife went to the party’ we end up with ‘me went to the party’ which is incorrect and therefore it must be ‘I’ not ‘me’. I have two objections to this. 

Firstly, if you remove any word from a sentence there is a good chance it won’t be correct anymore. Take ‘John and Dave are going to the party’. If we remove ‘and Dave’ we end up with ‘John are going to the party’ which is wrong. The sentence with the word removed though tells us nothing about the correctness of the original sentence. 

Secondly, a form may ‘break rules’ in certain contexts. Take for examples the sentence “I am lucky’. We note that the verb ‘am’ correctly matches the subject ‘I’. However, if we tried to stipulate that ‘I’ must always be used with ‘am’ we would run into problems. In the very specific case of a contracted negative question form ‘am’ changes to ‘are’:

I am lucky 
am I lucky? 
am I not lucky? 
aren’t I lucky? 

I defy anyone to claim that ‘are’ is the correct verb form to use with ‘I’. But in this very specific case most people would accept it as correct. And so it follows ‘me’ might act as the object pronoun most of the time, but it may also act as the subject pronoun in a very small set of circumstance such as with the sentence ‘me and John got pizza’. To see ‘me and my wife’ as problematic but none of the other instances of abnormalities in English ‘rules’ seems wholly arbitrary.  
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves in a sentence. 
As noted earlier, supporters of ‘I’ being the subject pronoun and thus correct run into problems when encountering the sentence ‘I and my wife’. to get round this the usual suggestion is that ‘it is polite to put your other people before yourself.’ On the face of it, this is quite an odd statement. We are at this point no longer appealing to grammatical accuracy but to ‘politeness’. It is curious then that this ‘politeness’ rule doesn’t seem to work very well when we switch to third person. 

my wife and I went to the party 
His wife and he went to the party 

No doubt, the grammar aficionado would stress that ‘he and his wife’ is correct in this case because we don’t need to worry about ‘putting other people before ourselves’. In that case, and since we are considering ‘politeness’, wouldn’t ‘ladies first’ be a good rule to follow? 

Convention 
Does all of this mean  that I think everyone should say ‘me and my wife went to the party?’ Not at all! The ‘rule’ is silly, but enough people know it that you risk looking bad by not following it. Rather, I would like people to stop insisting the perfectly normal subject ‘me and…’ is a ‘grammar mistake’. It’s really no more of a mistake than a split infinitive, ‘healthy food or saying ‘I’m good’ as a response to ‘how are you?’ 

It’s rare for me to quote Chomsky in agreement but I think he is right when he says: 

I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on …. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. (Chomsky 1991)

The rise of the pronouns


Pronouns, that most boringest part of ‘parts of speech‘, the substitute of the grammar world, dutifully standing in for other, cooler words, has been given a new lease of life. Until recently if you wanted to say ‘Tom likes pronouns and Tom uses them every day.’ and not sound like someone pretending to be a human being, you could simply switch the subsequent ‘Toms’ for ‘he’ and you’d be all set.

Someone left  ______ phone in the classroom. 

Traditional grammarians and the kind of people who would insist you say “I figuratively died!” in case they get confused, argue that as ‘someone’ is singular, the pronoun should also be singular. ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘it’ were the choices on the table but surprisingly(!) they went for ‘he’ as “the Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine. ho-hum. Thus our sentence would read ”someone left his phone in the classroom.’

Ironically, as Henry Hitchens notes it was a woman who promoted the idea that the singular pronoun should be male. Ann fisher, author of the popular A New Grammar (1745) believed that ‘he, him and his’ could be used ‘to cover both male and female in general statements.’

In modern times ‘singular they‘ has become increasingly acceptable, to the extent that almost everyone reading this would accept ‘Someone left their phone in the classroom’. Singular they also neatly solves the gender neutral pronoun issue. When talking about a generic subject such as:

A teacher who talks too much will alienate their students.

And so with even style guides accepting ‘singular they‘ it seemed as if the war was over. But in recent years there has been a disturbance in the force, as if millions of grammarians suddenly cried out in terror…
the current pronouns of English
The recent and quite dramatic media focus on Trans rights and ‘gender nonconforming’ people has shaken pronouns from their moribund slumber. The peak of media focus on trans issues was when 66 year old former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced that ‘for all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.’ Bruce became Caitlyn and he became she.
Those who opposed or mocked this transition were accused of ‘misgendering‘ -the crime of using the wrong pronouns (There is even a twitterbot designed to (rather inaccurately) enforce correct pronoun use). This sudden upheaval in grammatical terms led to some confused. Should we, for instance when talking about the Olympic achievements of this athlete use his or her? Did Bruce or Caitlyn win the 1974 decathlon? Is Jenner her children’s father still, or is she now their mother?
This confusion though is nothing when compared to ‘non-binary’ or ‘gender nonconforming’ individuals. A few years back Facebook introduced more inclusive pronouns for such individuals, around 58 more to be exact. The boring old male and female are still there, but joining them are ‘two spirit‘, ‘agender‘, and ‘bigender‘. And these new genders bring with them new pronouns. The university of Milwaukee, for instance, has a page offering advice to the confused. they list, among commonly used pronouns ‘singular they’. This may sound similar to the ‘singular they’ mentioned earlier but is, in fact, a very different beast. This ‘they’ is used to directly replace ‘she’ or ‘he’ in all sentences.
For instance, Jack Munroe, a food blogger and minor celebrtity has recently come out as Trans and has decided that her pronouns are they/them/their. Personal choice is a good thing, but things start to get a bit confusing when language is used in this way. In the first sentence of this paragraph for instance, I should have written ‘has decided that the pronouns they would like…’ and in not doing so I might be considered thoughtless and at worst possibly a bigot.
Asking the entire English speaking world to change the way the language works for your benefit is an impressive demand. Wikipedia attempts to get round this by constantly referring to her as ‘Munroe’ (ironically recreating the very problem pronouns solve):

Despite working every day, Monroe was unable to make ends meet. By January 2014, finances had improved, and Monroe was able to move into a small 2 bedroom flat with their son.

There are limits to this though and Wikipedia eventually has to actually use said pronouns, resulting in the grammatical horror below:

It was at this point they changed their name from their birth name to Jack Monroe – ‘Jack’ being short for “Jack of all trades“, their nickname.

So Wikipedia has accepted this, as have some news organisations like the BBC, for instance, who when writing about Kit Wilson state:As a child, Wilson never felt entirely female or entirely male. They figured they were a “tomboy” until the age of 16…

That this doesn’t really work becomes clear when we read sentences where who the pronoun refers to has to be explicitly spelt out in parenthesis:

Earlier this year, Wilson asked friends to call them “Kit,” instead of the name they (Wilson) had grown up with…

Here, the usefulness of pronouns as a class of word is nullified entirely. And there is a greater problem which at first isn’t so obvious. You can see it in the sentence below from Wikipedia.

Jack Monroe is a writer, journalist and activist…

Can’t see the issue? That’s because you’re used to normal English grammar. Allow me to explain.

Verbs match pronouns. We say ‘I am’ not (usually) ‘I is’ or ‘I are’. We say ‘he is’ we don’t (usually) say ‘you is’, ‘they is’ and so on. Jack Munroe and Kit Wilson’s preferred pronouns are ‘they’ which takes the verb ‘are’ (they are friends). When we use someone’s name we assume the pronoun in order to work out the verb. That is, when I say ‘John is tired’ the reason I use ‘is’ and not ‘are’ is because John = he. As Jack Munroe does not equal ‘she’ or ‘he’ but ‘they’ the sentence should read:

 Jack Monroe are a writer, journalist and activist…

This is such a normal part of our language that even those trying hard to use the right pronouns are getting it consistently wrong. Below are some examples of what writers should have written about Jack Munroe (I have corrected and highlighted the verbs):

Munroe were born in southend on sea
Munroe have three siblings
Munroe were unable to arrange work
Monroe are non-binary transgender and go by singular they pronouns

This might seem like a fad or something that could never possibly catch on, but the recent case of Leo Soell might give you pause. Soell, who identifies as neither male or female, won a $60,000 settlement for, among others things being subjected to ‘improper gender pronoun use’ after her colleagues refused to call her ‘they’ (they ‘they’?). New York City human right’s commission states that failing to us an individuals preferred pronouns, such as ‘Ze’ or ‘Hir’ is discrimination and may result in a fine. This is a major switch in the way the English language is used. As Deborah Cameron* notes:

Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

For hundreds of years grammarians pushed back against the common and reasonable usage of singular they. The few were able to demand acquiescence from the majority and be considered justified by dint of their supposed linguistic authority. But even grammarians never had the power to bring legal proceedings against those who used the language in way they disagreed with.In 2016 individuals can demand that every single other person apply an exceptional and arbitrary set of grammar rules to them and expect to be accommodated. It took hundreds of years for singular they to become accepted but now the floodgates appear to be open.

*2019 update*
It now seems that, in theory at least, people can be prosecuted in the UK under hate crime laws for using the wrong pronoun. Stories here and here.

*For a much more detailed look at this topic, check out Cameron’s blog here.

The False Gods of Grammar

In a recent tweet Conan O’Brien asked:


One reply was from Grammar girl, (mignon Forgarty) author of “quick and dirty grammar tips”. Grammar Girl is a grammar expert and is an editor and an MS graduate in biology,  -not linguistics, and while this shouldn’t matter, I’ll explain later why it does. Her reply was:

First of, it’s important to say that this is absolutely correct and she presents a completely accurate explanation of the differences on her websitetoo. My issue is with the rule itself. A grammar expert can repeat learned rules but it strikes me that someone with a background in science, like Grammar Girl, might want to peek a bit further behind the curtain and think about why those rules exist and if they are worth following at all. These kind of language ‘rules’ along with splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions, only exist because people in authority have decided they should exist, and a small band of self-proclaimed “experts” (from the 16th Century at least) have pronounced on their particular proclivities.

What’s wrong with who/whom?

A good place to start would be this piece about John McWorter’s (professor of linguistics) take on Who/whom. “Whom” is a fossilized piece of old English which is somehow still clinging to life. In  “myths, lies and half truths of language usage” he notes that many language experts, including the influential Robert Lowth fought for the survival of “whom”. However, McWorther notes, Lowth also fought for the survival of Sitten (sat), spitten (spat), wert (was) and Chicken as a plural (I have two Chicken). How many of these strike you as worth keeping?

If we look at other similar pronouns we can see how odd “whom” is:

pronoun use

Subject 

Object

Place

Where

Where

Time

When

When

Things

Which

Which

People

Who

Whom

General all purpose

That

That

 Linguistics quirks like this serve no purpose, as far as I can see, but to intimidate others and give people the chance to demonstrate their superior learning. The whole thing works like something of a catch 22. You can willfully split your infintives or refuse to use “whom”, despite knowing the “rules” but the maven you’re talking to may judge you as being less well educated, so you might feel obliged to use it anyway. It’s also worth noting that who/whom has been a source of mistakes throughout history, with errors appearing in The Bible, and works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchhill and Swift. So if you are confused, you’re in good company.  It’s certainly no indicator of stupidity.

The Grammar


In grammatical terms, who/whom are pronouns, they often appear in relative clauses such as:
        The person who/whomyou’re talking to is a blithering idiot.



Grammar “experts” would tell you that because the word is an object here, then it “ought to be” “whom” not “who”. If we follow Grammar Girl’s rule (above) we would say “I’m talking to him” and thus use “whom”. This “ought to be” is what is called prescriptivism. But what does that mean?  Steven Pinker( linguist and cognitive scientist) defines it like this:

The contradiction begins in the fact that the words “rule,” “grammatical,” and “ungrammatical” have very different meanings to a scientist and to a layperson. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called prescriptive rules, prescribing how one “ought” to talk. Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules, describing how people do talk. 

Most of what I write here has been said before, notably by Pinker in his 1994 book The Language Instinct. Although this is a lengthy quote it is worth reproducing here:

[who/whom] is one of the standard prescriptivist complaints about common speech. In reply, one might point out that the who/ whom distinction is a relic of the English case system, abandoned by nouns centuries ago and found today only among pronouns in distinctions like he/him. Even among pronouns, the old distinction between subject ye and object you has vanished, leaving you to play both roles and ye as sounding completely archaic. Whom has outlived yebut is clearly moribund; it now sounds pretentious in most spoken contexts. No one demands of Bush that he say Whom do ye trust? If the language can bear the loss of ye, using you for both subjects and objects, why insist on clinging to whom, when everyone uses who for both subjects and objects?

It also follows that if a person believes “whom” to be necessary when in an object position, shouldn’t they also extend that rule to spoken English? Look at the following sentences:

Who are you looking at?

Who do you think you are?

Both of these, according to the “rule” are incorrect. They should read “whom are you looking at” and “whom do you think you are”. Now if you think that this sounds odd and would rather say “incorrect” things like “who are you talking about?” then why on earth would you insist on using whom at all?

More expertise

Bill Bryson is another such language expert. His popular style guide troublesome words, shows again how keen people are for an authority figure to tell them what the “rules” are. People seem to crave this kind of stuff (judging from the reviews). The section on Who/whom is typical of much of the book. Bryson has done his homework and seems to understand the arguments against this kind of rule but inexplicably always chooses to support the rule anyway, because…well…he’s fond of it:

 

English has been shedding its pronoun declension for hundreds of years; today who is the only relative pronoun that is still declinable. Preserving the distinction between who and whom does nothing to promote clarity or reduce ambiguity. It has become merely a source of frequent errors and perpetual uncertainty. Authorities have been tossing stones at whom for at least 200 years. -Noah Webster was one of the first to call it needless- but the word refuses to go away. (Bryson 1984: 216)

Bryson then goes on to say, right after this barrage, “I, for one, would not like to see it go”.

As an interesting aside, Bryson also notes Grammar Girls “him/he” rules but then points out that it doesn’t always work. He offers the example of:
 

“They rent in to whoever needs it”

Apply the rule and we get “they rent it to him” him = whom (but who is correct) 

In order to apply this “quick and dirty” rule you have to have the grammatical knowledge that the clause “whoever needs it” is the object of “rent”, not “him”.That is you should say “he needs it” to reach the correction pronoun “who”.

Confused?

Language Experts

 

The problem again with advice like this is that it is not based on any empirical findings, but rather, as throughout history, on the predilections of “authorities” and the recitation of commonly accepted “rules” which usually again originate in the predilections of “authorities” or a mistaken/superficial understanding of how the English language works. The real experts, professors in applied linguistics for example, are usually ignored and words like “whom” are kept alive on the artificial respirator of prescriptivism.

I have shown above that linguistics like Pinker and McWhorter have quite a different take on who/whom than “language experts” like Bryson and Grammar Girl.  The difference is that  Bryson and Grammar Girl are essentially more involved with journalism and publishing than linguistics.  Writers and editors get their ideas from style guides like the Chicago Manuel of Style and Strunk and White who are again often just rehashing of previously held prejudices and blackboard grammar rules.  McWhorter comments that Strunk and White “made decisions based on how nice they thought something looked or sounded, just like arranging furniture.”  And while Grammar Girl and Bryson have made notable leaps forward, accepting, for instance, split infintives, there is still a tendency to let personal preferences dictate rules:

 

She also tends to accept the word of authorities without questioning them.  In this interview She notes that “like” is frowned upon but she uses it:

MF: I tend to use “like” as a conjunction. Technically, we’re supposed to say “It looks as if it’s going to rain” or “It looks as though it’s going to rain.” I tend to say “It looks like it’s going to rain.” That’s wrong, but I’ve been saying it that way my whole life and it’s a hard habit to break. I’m constantly correcting myself.



To a linguist, the idea of you using something your whole life which is “wrong” is an astonishing notion and one which Pinker gently mocks here:
 


Imagine that you are watching a nature documentary. The video shows the usual gorgeous footage of animals in their natural habitats. But the voiceover reports some troubling facts. Dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes properly. White-crowned sparrows carelessly debase their calls. Chickadees’ nests are incorrectly constructed, pandas hold bamboo in the wrong paw, the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys’ cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years. Your reaction would probably be, What on earth could it mean for the song of the humpback whale to contain an “error”? Isn’t the song of the humpback whale whatever the humpback whale decides to sing? Who is this announcer, anyway?

I have nothing against Grammar Girl personally. She’s a popular, talented and successful person, if anything I’m a bit jealous, -but I do wish she turn over the grammatical rocks and look a bit deeper underneath. It’s fine knowing the “rules” but it’s more important to know where those rules come from and if they are worth following. Admittedly the facts are perhaps not as crystal clear or as neat and satisfying as the “rules”, but surely the facts are more important.

 

References (not hyperlinked)


 

Bryson, B 1984 Troublesome words London: Penguin














 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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