Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Mismatched Pronouns Again

It occurred to me this morning that the spread of mismatched pronouns, like the “I” in about Malcolm and I, has not included compound pronouns such as about he and I or about they and we. My claim has always been that this culture-imbuing speech error was the result of overcompensation (some call it hypercorrection) for an error equally gross: “Me and Jake were friends in grammar school.” This observation supports that claim.

I am old enough to recall kids around me using the objective case in the subject: “Me and you have to stick together.” I recall, I think, every teacher I ever studied with through high school that we should say, “You and I have to stick together.” None of them pointed out that two issues were at stake: (1) the grammatical imperative that we use of the subjective case of the pronouns when they are in subject position and (2) the pressure of etiquette that we place the name of the other person before “I”. All of my teachers pointed out the latter; I don’t recall any mentioning specifically the former.

The result is that many of us thought that you and IGalen and I, and so on were simply the only way you could express pronouns in compounds. However, if that is true, we should hear people saying things like, “about they and I”, “above they and we,” “about they and he,” “over they and I,” “except he and we,” and so on. But guess what? You can’t find expressions like these on the Web to any significant extent with one exception: between you and I.

Other pronouns are used with this preposition, but only when they stand for nouns, e.g. between ‘we’ and ‘they’, where we stands for “our people” and they stand for “their people”. You can find before you and I when before is used as a conjunction and this phrase is correct in the subject position of the subordinate clause: “Fremont arrived before you and I left.”

So I am taking this anecdotal evidence as support for the first part of my position: we had it drummed into our heads at school that you must use I after proper nouns in compound phrases. Between him and me is everywhere on the Web; between he and I barely shows up. No overcompensation or hypercorrection occurs at all, except to extend the case mismatch of I in object positions to he and she. It does not extend to we and they and not even to he and she if they are combined with other pronouns.

The issue is obviously more complex than anyone has previously noticed and this will not be the final word on it by any means. However, it could be the beginning of another step forward. I will keep an eye on it and report again in the future when I have a clearer picture.


6 Responses to “Mismatched Pronouns Again”

  1. Stephen Waldman Says:

    I think it’s possible that a factor in this is what may be called ‘error by pretension’. Is it the Latinate sound of ‘I’? Another example in grammar: ‘Whom shall I say is calling?’ In vocabulary: misuse of ‘reticent’ and (with apologies to you, but I insist) ‘comprise’.

  2. rbeard Says:

    I don’t quite follow this since the Latin pronunciatio of I is short [ee]. How the pronunciation of the pronoun affects its substituting for me doesn’t quite click, either. Could you explain a bit deeper?

  3. Stephen Waldman Says:

    I’m probably just reaching beyond my intellectual grasp (how unusual!), but it’s always seemed to me that ‘I’ for ‘me’ is an over-reaction to a common error of youth, and that part of that makes ‘I’ sound ‘high-tone’ to us, rather like ‘Whom shall I say is calling?’ I suppose my mind made an association with Latinate (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon) vocabulary. Thank you. Stephen

  4. rbeard Says:


    Actually, you may be on to something that I never thought of. I still use “whom” simply because it lasted longer in the South than North; however, my wife tends to say, “It is I”, rather than, “It is me” because of a misinformed lesson in grammar school.

    This misuse of “I” comes from Latin and other languages that observe case forms (different endings on nouns and pronouns depending on their use in the sentence). In Latin and other such languages, after a connective verb like “be, become, remain” indicating some state of being rather than an actioin, the noun following these verbs are in the nominative (subject) case.

    This is because the accusative (object) case indicates the noun that something happens to. In “The man bit the dog” it is the dog that something happens to, so you would say in all languages the equivalent of “he bit him”. But “he is him” is proper only in English were “him” is no longer a strict object case but a transitional state of case dying out.

    “It is I” : “between John and I” has that same strained sense about it. I don’t think the latter was derived from the former but I’m beginning to think that it did influence it.


  5. Leonore Dvorkin Says:

    It should be relatively easy to teach the correct use of English pronouns. If the pronoun follows a preposition, it needs to be in the objective case: me, you, him, her, it, us, them. Between is a preposition. Therefore, it is “Between him and me,” or “between us,” or “between John and me.”
    I have also read, as I did just today in an e-mail message to me, “Friday is a holiday for Tim and I.” There, too, for is a preposition, and so the person should have written, “for Tim and me.”
    By the way, as a tutor of Spanish, I need to point out that in Spanish, “entre tú y yo” — “between you and I,” with BOTH of the pronouns in the subjective case, is correct. That makes me wonder whether this current use of “I” where it should be “me” is at least partly due to the influence of widely spoken languages such as Spanish, in which the subject pronoun is correct in places where it would be wrong in English.

  6. dean p Says:

    To throw in my gratuitous two cents, I believe the use of “I” in groups of two pronouns, whether objective or subjective, is a reaction to lifetimes of corrections for using “me” when “I” was proper. Now you hear everyone, on radio and television, spreading this grammatical “virus”. But I guess that’s just language; it precisely mirrors its speakers, both you and I.

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