Monday, March 02, 2009

The New York Times Discusses Something Me Know a Bit About

The New York Times (and its defenders) is such an easy target; it feels like beating a kitten every time I have to write about the latest stupidity they have written in their pages. This op/ed in particular is of medieval interest. It defends Barack Obama's incorrect usage of I/me.

Now, frankly, I couldn't possibly care less whether Obama has good grammar or not. If you want a grammar scold, look up your middle school English teacher. Furthermore, the article claims that "the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers" for his mis-use of I and me. Unsurprisingly, none of these blogged criticisms is cited by the article. As a blogging English professor, I think I'm pretty plugged in to what are the hot language topics on the inter-web-o-net-o-sphere, and I haven't picked up any of that. I did a bit of searching, and could find not a single blog post or article on the topic, with the exception of those responding to this particular NYT piece. I suspect that phrase should be translated like this:
I've noticed Obama frequently makes this freshman-level grammatical error, but lest people accuse me of insufficient zeal for Obama, I'm going to blame evil bloggers for raising the issue. After all, surely someone out there must have blogged on this, right?

Just remember this when reading any journalistic piece, a bit of wisdom I've picked up from reading thousands of papers: When the writer makes vague reference and doesn't actually cite the source, it generally means he's making it up.

Let's assume, though, for the sake of argument, that two different people have blogged on this topic (thus meeting the minimum requirement for the plural form of "bloggers") -- what about the merits of their argument? O'Conner and Kellerman write:
For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either “I” or “me” as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after “and.”

After citing a line from Shakespeare (Hello? Anyone else aware that it is poetry?) and a letter from Byron (one wonders how long they had to search to find that error), they then suggest:
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about “I” and “me." [....] Why did these 19th-century wordies insist “I” is “I” and “me” is “me”? They were probably influenced by Latin, with its rigid treatment of subject and object pronouns.

Now, the 19th-century grammar scolds were indeed enamored of Latin constructions, and gave us such rules as "never split an infinitive," etc. But the real reason you can't find older grammars in English talking about these errors isn't that they are only recently considered errors, but because there weren't a lot of books on grammar earlier than that. Heck, Johnson didn't even produce the first dictionary in English until the 1700s!

In their diligent efforts to find Obama free from linguistic sin (and to sell their book), O'Conner and Kellerman seem to suggest that all that inflection of pronouns is a Latin thing, and was never part of English. Is this true? Let's read what one of those 19th-century language mavens had to say. Henry Sweet, in his 1886 An Anglo-Saxon Primer lists the singular first-person pronoun like this:
Nom. ic (I)
Acc me
Dat. me
Gen. min

Weird -- he lists the nominative (subject) form as "I" and the accusative (direct object) and dative (indirect object) forms as "me," and he's not even talking about Latin! It's almost as if (gasp!) Old English and Middle English treated subject and object pronouns in this way!

Look, if you want to defend Obama, that's fine, but let's not create some sort of fantasy world in which he's demonstrating a purer pre-19th century grammar usage for the rest of us Latin-befuddled rubes. Why not, instead, accept Pope's wisdom: "To err is human?"


  1. Anonymous10:26 PM

    I'll take a stab at defending Obama here... English has been in the process of losing declension for centuries, with pronouns being notably resistant to that process. But my own sense is that the I/me distinction has passed some sort of tipping point: the distinction is still alive enough for there to be a "correct" usage, but it has weakened to the point that for many well-spoken people it no longer has the force that it once had. And the "correct" usage is no longer an instantaneous, unconscious choice as, for example, the correct usage of was/were is. I know that's the case for me, especially in certain sentence patterns.

  2. It's not Obama I'm criticizing here; that's why there are no quotes from him. What I'm criticizing is O'Conner and Kellerman's claim that the use of "I" for the subject and "me" for the object is just, as they claim "conventional wisdom" made up by a lot of Latin-obsessed 19th century grammar junkies.

    That's bogus. English has made that distinction since it began distinguishing itself from the other northern Germanic languages a millennium-and-a-half ago.

    Of course you, anonymous Wordhoarder, clearly understand that from your statement "English has been in the process of losing declension for centuries," recognizing that it has something to lose, and has been doing so for centuries.

    If the writers had argued as you do, that English used to make that distinction but the rule has been weakened, I would have grumbled a bit about the usefulness of a distinction between subject and object, but in the end language change is inexorable. Your argument is better than the op/ed argument because it has the virtue of being rooted in real historical linguistic truth, not politically-motivated nonsense.

  3. Speaking of politically motivated nonsense...

    I haven't been able to locate the missing bloggers who grind their axes over Obama's faulty I/Me. So you're probably right that they don't exist. I have, however, been able to find -lots- of bloggers attacking Obama for his grammar in general. (Things like not using "an" in front of a vowel, or using too many modal auxiliaries.)

    When Bush was prez, the party line at was "shame on you, snobs, for being snobby about grammar." Now it's morphed into "shame on you, snobs, for not being snobby enough about grammar."