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PETER TRUDGILL: How ‘correct’ pronouns has sent language in a peculiar direction

Language is changing, even in novels. Picture: Getty - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

​Insecurity over the ‘correct’ use of pronouns has led language in an unusual direction, says PETER TRUDGILL

In normal native English, the personal pronouns I, he, she, we, they are only used when they appear as the subject of a verb: I am leaving now; he likes coffee; she would like some; we are coming; they would prefer tea. Otherwise, me, him, her, us, them – forms which are technically known as oblique pronouns – are employed: It’s me; it was them that did it; who wanted coffee? Him! In this respect English behaves like French, where the correct grammatical reply to the question Qui est là? (‘Who is there?’) is not C’est je (‘It’s I’) but C’est moi (‘It’s me’). Similarly, in Norwegian one says Det er meg! (‘It’s me’).

Oblique pronouns are also used when there are two subjects joined together by and: the majority of native English speakers say I went to London yesterday, but Mary and me went to London yesterday. It is also quite normal to say John and them are leaving now, while John and they are leaving now sounds rather odd. English speakers also say them and us are travelling together, not they and we are travelling together.

A centuries-long inferiority complex in the English-speaking world with respect to Latin has led to attempts by self-appointed authorities to get rid of the use of these oblique pronouns everywhere except where they occur as objects. This is on the mistaken assumption that they are ‘accusative case’ forms, as in Latin.

It is argued that me and him are coming ‘should be’ he and I are coming (also involved in this particular example is the view that ‘it is not polite to put yourself first’). This particular attempt has been partly successful, and the he and I structure is the one which is now most often used in formal speech.

Similarly, pedants claim that it was her that did it ‘should be’ it was she that did it. This seems to have had some success in written American English – with certain contemporary novelists, for instance – but is still normally absent from the speech of the overwhelming majority of English speakers. It is much less frequently argued that the answer to who wanted coffee? should be he!, presumably because this sounds just too absurd.

But no doubt there are some pedants who believe that the #MeToo movement should be #IToo. Some Americans really can be heard to reply this is he/she on the phone to someone who has asked to speak to them by name, though this is widely felt to be weird by most English speakers elsewhere.

There are a number of cases, however, where the ‘accusative case’ hypothesis has had consequences for the English language which were not those intended. First, it has produced ‘hypercorrect’ forms, e.g. the incorrect use of subject pronouns joined by and after prepositions instead of oblique pronouns, in sentences such as: There was a great rapport between he and his mother.

But the most notable unintended consequence undoubtedly lies in the phenomenon of me-avoidance. There is a long history of pronouncements by English-speaking pedants along the lines that it is ‘wrong’ to say Mary and me are coming, and that I should be used rather than me. The propagation of this view has produced great insecurity on the part of many native speakers about using me, and they now often therefore hypercorrect and use constructions such as he brought it for Mary and I, as well as the very common between you and I.

When speakers are also told that that is wrong, too, this causes further insecurity. This is now leading to the increased use of myself instead of I or me – as in there is a great rapport between John and myself, and Mary and myself are coming – as a way of avoiding the problem. Unofficial language planners have tried to make English more like Latin, but the result has been the exact opposite.