Etymology Grammar Usage

Does “let’s” need lexical support?

Q: In a book I’m reading, a character says, “Let’s begin the chase, you and I.” This sounds correct, at least to me, but analyzing the line got me thinking that maybe it should be “you and me.” In my own writing, which should I use?

A: In spoken English, “let’s” (or “let us”) is often followed by either “you and I” or “you and me”—with or without words and punctuation between the two parts.

Is one version better than the other? Not really. The case of the accompanying pronouns—nominative “you and I” or objective “you and me”—doesn’t much matter.

This is because the “us” that’s part of the contraction “let’s” is all the pronoun you need, strictly speaking.

So adding either “you and I” or “you and me” is technically redundant—similar to adding “us” and creating the pronoun-heavy “let’s us.”

So arguments about the “correct” grammatical case here are pointless. We’re talking about idiomatic, colloquial expressions that are common and generally acceptable in speech.

“Let’s you and I” and “let’s you and me” are seldom found in written English, except in writing that’s reproducing speech, like that of the character in the book you mentioned.

Now for a little historical perspective.

The contraction “let’s” has been around since at least as far back as Elizabethan times. Shakespeare used it hundreds of times in his plays, including King Henry VI, Part II, with its famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Generally, the verb “let” is used with pronouns in the objective case: “let me,” “let us,” “let him,” and so on.

But over the years, “let” has occasionally been used with pronouns in the nominative case. The grammarian Otto Jespersen, in his Essentials of English Grammar, cites several examples, including this one from Byron: “Let He who made thee answer that.”

And in spoken English, “let’s” has been used with extra pronouns in both cases.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels “let’s you and me (or you and I, or us)” as a colloquial usage—that is, characteristic of spoken rather than written English—and calls it an “irregular phrase.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the construction as idiomatic and has this to say: “Let’s can also be followed by a pair of pronouns in either the nominative or the objective case; the constructions occur in both American and British English.”

The quotations that follow include examples in the nominative case (like “let’s you and I go together,” from Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play The Benefit of the Doubt), and in the objective case (“Let’s you and me duck out of here,” from John D. MacDonald’s 1950 novel The Brass Cupcake).

We’ll also provide an example, though it doesn’t use the contraction: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.” from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915).

(Obviously, “you and I” rhymes with “sky.” But if the last word in the second line had been “sea,” who knows? Eliot might have written “you and me.”)

But back to Merriam-Webster’s and the “let’s” usages. It notes that these “are idiomatic constructions—no matter what the case of the pronoun—found almost exclusively in spoken English.”

“You can use whichever of them sounds right to you wherever you would use speech forms in writing,” M-W adds. “You will probably not need any of them in anything you write that is at all removed from speech.”

Perhaps what we ought to be asking is why speakers feel the need to add either pair—“you and I” or “you and me”—to “let’s” in the first place. (People never use “let’s we,” and “let’s us” is widely frowned upon.)

Some grammarians believe that “let’s” is treated here as a single unit rather than a contraction of “let us”—that is to say, the “us” is swallowed up.

Consequently, the speaker senses that “let’s” needs some propping up, and adds “you and me” or the slightly more formal-sounding “you and I.”

This would also account for the similar constructions “let’s both” and “let’s each,” as well as the even more propped-up “let’s both of us” and “let’s each of us.”

In all these “let’s” phrases, notice how the “us” represented by that ’s has almost disappeared.

A modern grammarian might say that “us” or ’s has been “desemanticized” or has experienced “semantic loss,” and thus requires additional information in the way of “lexical support.”

It’s been argued now and then that because the object pronoun “us” is part of the contraction, any propping up should be done with pronouns in a similar case. By this argument, “let’s you and me” is preferable to “let’s you and I.”

But in our opinion, that argument merely creates the illusion that “correctness” is possible (or even desirable) here. As the OED says, this is an “irregular phrase” no matter what the case.

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