Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Me, my wife and I

Should you say 'me and my wife went to the party' or 'my wife and I went to the party?' 

Most people who are likely to care at all about this kind of thing will tell you that 'my wife and I' is correct and anything else makes you sound uneducated or impolite. There are three reasons given for this:



1. The words 'Me and my wife' are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun 'I' . 
2. Removing words from the sentence indicates that 'my wife and I' is correct. 
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves. 


In this post I'm going to attempt to convince you that the pillars holding up the 'my wife and I' position are unsound. Most of what I will write about comes from John McWhorter's lexicon valley podcast (link). I would strongly recommend listening to that instead of reading this. 


Rules 

Many defenders of 'my wife and I' will tell you that this is a 'rule'. You always have to be a little bit weary when someone tells you that something is a grammar 'rule' because they're often talking about arbitrary prescriptions or personal taste. This is the case with 'my wife and I' which is one of those 'rules' that people need to be taught like 'double negatives'. I've talked at length in this post about how if you need to constantly explain to native speakers that their language use is wrong, then maybe it isn't. Also, like double negatives, other languages have no issues with 'me and my wife' construction. As McWhorter notes, in French 'moi femme et je' would not be a possible construction and the correct  'Ma femme et moi' clearly has the object pronoun 'moi' in the subject position. 

so without further ado, let's have a look at those arguments. 

1. The words 'Me and my wife' are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun 'I' 

English sentences usually start with subjects. so in 'I love you', I is the subject. If it were the object it would change to 'me' such as 'you love me'. The sentence 'me and my wife went to the party' seems to flaunt this rule because 'me' is in the subject position and so it should be I. 

The problem with this argument is, were it true, the sentence 'I and my wife went to the party' would be a perfectly proper sentence, after all, the subject is properly 'I'. However, 'I and my wife' sounds a bit off to me. So is something else is going on here?


McWhorter makes the rather bold claim that 'me', not 'I' is in fact English's subject pronoun and that I is a rather special word that is only used when there is only one subject before the verb. Therefore 'I went to the party' sounds OK, and 'me and the lads went to the party' sounds OK, but 'I and the lads went to the party' doesn't sound right because there is more than one subject. I'd never heard this argument before but I'd welcome some disconfirming evidence. 


McWhorter defends his idea by noting that the sentence 'Who did it?' is normally answered by 'me'. To explain why this is a problem for the 'my wife and I' crowd I need to explain a bit of grammar. 


'Who did it?' is what is know as a 'subject question' because the question word 'who' is replacing the subject word of the sentence and so the answer would be the subject of the sentence. It might be 'John did it' for instance. This is in contrast to an object question like 'What did John eat'. You can't answer this by simply swapping out the 'what' with the answer (*pizza did John eat'). 

The answer to 'who did it' should therefore be 'I' because it's the subject of the sentence. However people don't say that. They say 'me'. So 'me', McWhorter argues, seems to be acting as the subject here. You could, I suppose, try to make the case that this is an abbreviated form of 'It was me'  but this just seems like convenient hand-waving to me.  Besides, the 'my wife and I' crowd would surely also insist on 'It was I', not 'it was me'. 


2. Removing a word will indicate whether the sentence is correct. 


A second pillar of the argument is that If we remove 'my wife' from the sentence 'me and my wife went to the party' we end up with 'me went to the party' which is incorrect and therefore it must be 'I' not 'me'. I have two objections to this. 

Firstly, if you remove any word from a sentence there is a good chance it won't be correct anymore. Take 'John and Dave are going to the party'. If we remove 'and Dave' we end up with 'John are going to the party' which is wrong. The sentence with the word removed though tells us nothing about the correctness of the original sentence. 

Secondly, a form may 'break rules' in certain contexts. Take for examples the sentence "I am lucky'. We note that the verb 'am' correctly matches the subject 'I'. However, if we tried to stipulate that 'I' must always be used with 'am' we would run into problems. In the very specific case of a contracted negative question form 'am' changes to 'are':

I am lucky 
am I lucky? 
am I not lucky? 
aren't I lucky? 

I defy anyone to claim that 'are' is the correct verb form to use with 'I'. But in this very specific case most people would accept it as correct. And so it follows 'me' might act as the object pronoun most of the time, but it may also act as the subject pronoun in a very small set of circumstance such as with the sentence 'me and John got pizza'. To see 'me and my wife' as problematic but none of the other instances of abnormalities in English 'rules' seems wholly arbitrary.  

3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves in a sentence. 
As noted earlier, supporters of 'I' being the subject pronoun and thus correct run into problems when encountering the sentence 'I and my wife'. to get round this the usual suggestion is that 'it is polite to put your other people before yourself.' On the face of it, this is quite an odd statement. We are at this point no longer appealing to grammatical accuracy but to 'politeness'. It is curious then that this 'politeness' rule doesn't seem to work very well when we switch to third person. 

my wife and I went to the party 
His wife and he went to the party 


No doubt, the grammar aficionado would stress that 'he and his wife' is correct in this case because we don't need to worry about 'putting other people before ourselves'. In that case, and since we are considering 'politeness', wouldn't 'ladies first' be a good rule to follow? 

Convention 
Does all of this mean  that I think everyone should say 'me and my wife went to the party?' Not at all! The 'rule' is silly, but enough people know it that you risk looking bad by not following it. Rather, I would like people to stop insisting the perfectly normal subject 'me and...' is a 'grammar mistake'. It's really no more of a mistake than a split infinitive, 'healthy food' or saying 'I'm good' as a response to 'how are you?' 

It's rare for me to quote Chomsky in agreement but I think he is right when he says: 
I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on …. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. (Chomsky 1991)




6 comments:

  1. Agree entirely and Oliver Kamm has written much about this. But the ladies first bit is a red herring. That's etiquette and nothing to do with structural politeness in the language, surely?

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    1. Thanks for reading!
      Can you direct me to the Kamm stuff on this?

      Could you elaborate on your second point? I'm not sure I quite get it.

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    2. 'Ladies first' is a rather antiquated principle of etiquette that really only applies to entering and exiting rooms. It's strongly confined to doorway related situations. Supposing that habits of speech betray habits of thought and (more controversially) that the causation can also run the other way (i.e. habits of speech can come to condition habits of thought) the general principle of prioritising others before oneself is more than mere politeness. It is an ethical attitude.

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    3. apparently this is a go to reference for all things on co-ordinated pronouns [https://web.stanford.edu/~zwicky/Grano.finalthesis.pdf]

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  2. A very useful post, Russ! Another example came to mind while I was reading – a line from a popular song by Ed Sheeran: *me and my friends*. I'd say that young people would probably choose this option over *my friends and I*simply because the latter sounds a bit too correct and thus too formal. So your linguistic choices also say something about your age and attitude. Anyway, I remember that *my … and I* was the only acceptable version when I started studying English as an L2. Everything else was dismissed out of hand. Thanks for the post.

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    1. Thanks for the reply! There are quite a few pop songs with the 'me and...' construction .

      There are also quite a few educated people who over correct and say 'they invited my wife and I...' and so on.

      My family have always used 'me and...' since I've been alive at least. :)

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