September 24, 2023

Someone assigned to document how English grammar works who was completely unfamiliar with the language would find this pronominal usage intricate, not broken. The idea that the rule is something as elementary as that you always use the subject form as a subject and always use the object form as an object just isn’t the way Modern English has ever been spoken.

After all, when you learn other languages, do you expect them to be that tidy? In French, using the subject pronoun I before or after and isn’t even allowed: “John and I know” is never “Jean et je savons.” In some languages, pronouns often elude perfect logic: In Russian, you don’t say “Me and my wife” (whoops, “My wife and I”) but “We and the wife.” And life goes on.

In my experience, my pushing this point sometimes genuinely irks, and even occasionally angers people. I recall a man in an audience I spoke to who was so fumingly insistent that the subject must always be expressed with I that he seemed to almost want to fight me.

But there is no need here for fisticuffs. I am not calling for us to give up the “you and I know” form entirely. It will live eternally: It is, perhaps, the one made-up blackboard grammar rule that has become such an established and rigorously policed habit that it pretty much qualifies as natural language (unlike “It is I,” which has never truly caught on).

Yet this rule is, in the end, a concoction. It is one of many such rules (like saying you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition) created by people who, among other now outdated concerns, wanted English to be more like Latin, under an impression that Latin was an especially majestic language because of its association with a celebrated classical past. They meant well, but modern linguistics did not exist yet, and in terms of grammar expertise, they were old-time naturalists as compared to modern biologists.

So, while we must learn this rule as a custom, we should also be aware that the rule, like many customs, makes no more sense logically than the fact that oaky-tasting chardonnay went out of fashion after the 1990s. To wit: “You and me know” is not illogical and thus not a sign of sloppy thinking any more than saying “I’m late, aren’t I?” is illogical because you would never say “I are late.” Quirky subject, this.

And that is why I wrote “Were me and my students missing something?” One’s patience with the arbitrary can wear thin. I also continue to seek out oaky chardonnays.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and “Woke Racism.”