Etymology Grammar Usage

A sin in syntax?

Q: You say there’s no grammatical rule against putting “me” first in a phrase like “between me and you,” but a Grammar Girl guest writer says otherwise. Who’s right? Just looking for the facts (on the Internet of all places).

A: Let us reiterate this. There is no grammatical foundation for the belief that “I” (in a compound subject) or “me” (in a compound object) must be mentioned last. The order in which the pronouns appear is irrelevant from a grammatical standpoint.

As we’ve said in blog postings in 2011 and 2008, this may be a matter of politeness but it has nothing to do with any formal rule of English syntax (that is, word order).

Certain constructions come more naturally than others. A sentence like “You and I ought to meet more often” seems more natural than “I and you ought to meet more often.” Some linguists argue that putting “I” first here is phonologically awkward.

That’s because we customarily mention first the person we’re addressing: “You and I …” or “You and he….”

But we also say things like “I and my entire family owe the school a debt of gratitude.” And we might say, “I or my associate will get back to you,” to stress that the first option is the more likely.

It’s often the case that the speaker wishes to emphasize himself or herself, and this is perfectly legitimate.

Historically, English writers have used first-person pronouns in the first position for centuries. Here are a only few of the hundreds of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for compound objects beginning with “I and….”

before 1300: “I and mi wijf” [my wife]

1382: “I and the fadir [father] that sent me”

1385 “bothe I and ye”

1386: “I and thou and sche [she]”

1387: “I and thow [thou] be here allone”

1439: “I and myne airis” [my heirs]

1440: “I and al my kin”

The examples go on and on, right up to the present time. And there are hundreds more for compound objects beginning with “me and….”

So much for the historical record. How about the grammatical record?

As the linguist Katie Wales writes in her book Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English (1996), there’s “not a grammatical rule, but a politeness rule, which stipulates that the 1PP [first person pronoun] should occur at the end of the co-ordinated NP [noun phrase], out of modesty.”

The “politeness rule” she mentions was set out in 1985 in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Randolph Quirk et al.), which refers to “the rule of politeness which stipulates that 1st person pronouns should occur at the end of the coordinate construction.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language refers to this “ordering tendency” as “a convention of politeness.”

There’s nothing wrong with politeness and modesty in English usage. (A little tact comes in handy, too.) But let’s not confuse good etiquette with good grammar.

Emily Post might have rapped your knuckles for putting “me” first, but Henry Fowler probably wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow.

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