Nothing like being locked up and spending time listening to the radio and the odd audiobook to prompt a rant about a grammatical bugbear which has been giving me the severe spits for ages. And when I came across it in the otherwise stupendous work ‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor, enough was enough. Let me tell you Mr O’Connor, Sir Henry Irving, the great Victorian actor, would never, ever have said (IIRC) ‘that will be a matter for you and I’. Because every even slightly educated Victorian knew that the preposition ‘for’ requires the accusative, or objective, case: … a matter for you and me. Because in that era books on correct English usage outsold every other book except the Bible.
How has this grammatical mistake come to be so common? And it is a mistake, not just ‘language evolving’ about which more later. I have watched it happen over my lifetime. When we were kids it was normal and common to say things like, “Me and Jim are going to the pictures.” No, our mothers and fathers would say, it’s “Jim and I are going to the pictures”. Now if you were not blessed as I was with a thorough grounding in grammar – not just English grammar but Latin, from which most English grammatical structures are derived – then you might have concluded that ‘me’ was vulgar and ‘I’ was proper. Obviously that is how most people took it and the phrase ‘you and me’ became, over time, universally supplanted by ‘you and I’, regardless of where it occurred in a sentence. Even by announcers on the BBC, I am heartbroken to report. And from the pens of otherwise impeccably qualified writers of historical fiction.
The tragedy is that it doesn’t even really call for much of an education to draw the right distinction. In any given sentence simply remove the ‘you and’ or ‘Jim and’ or whatever and say the same thing again. Obviously you would say ‘Jim and I are going’ because you would say ‘I am going’. Equally obviously you would never say ‘That is down to I’ so you should never say ‘That is down to you and I’.
Frankly, it is just ignorance, and the plain desire of people with insufficient education to speak proper. Prepositions – for, with, by, from, to, etc. ad infinitum – take the subjective case. Me/us/them, not I/we/they. And so will they always.
Now. Isn’t this just the evolution of language? No it is not. There are distinctions. We were taught to say ‘cóntroversy’. Now everyone says ‘contróversy’ and it does not matter. That is language evolving. No meaning is lost. No unclarity befalls us from this. But when we start to dismantle grammar and syntax we start to lose that most precious linguistic property, precision. Clarity. Take it far enough and we end up not knowing with certainty what is being said. It is no coincidence that the meticulous formulation of the grammar of European languages took place at the same time as the Enlightenment and the emergence of the laws of science. There is a fair amount of grammatical sloppiness in Shakespeare. For example in his day double superlatives – This, my most dearest brother – were acceptable as a means of giving emphasis. The rules of grammar, the logical children of the first dictionaries, tidied up that and many similar usages. We learned to teach children to parse the English language in the way that they used to parse Latin and Greek. This was not mere fastidiousness. It was work that served the clarity of thought and expression which made engineering and applied science possible. Such advances required and still require the very precise expression and communication of complex ideas in such a way that they cannot be ambiguous and thus give rise to mistakes.
Is it a lost cause? Obviously. Still, even lost causes are causes. Someone has to make a stand for them. I guess this time it is down to me, and if you wish to join me it will be down to you and me.