A Word on Grammar Between You and I

I received an entertaining email today from Harry Bingham at Jericho Writers, and I thought I should share it with you.

In case you didn’t know, Jericho Writers offer anything a writer might need to improve their craft: courses, events, mentoring editing and lots more. Check them out at http://www.jerichowriters.com

Harry Bingham
Harry Bingham, the Jericho Writer founder and an acclaimed author of fiction and non-fiction, is especially known for his Fiona Griffiths crime series.

In the email, Harry says: “. . . The second group of inboxes belongs to a ferocious tribe who noticed, and were instantly enraged by, the grammatical mistake contained in the phrase Between you and I.

What is the mistake? Ah well, though English doesn’t have a host of grammatical cases – unlike German with 4, Russian with 6, and a surely unnecessary 7 in Polish – there is still a difference between the nominative case (“he” or “I”) and the accusative case (“him” or “me”.) And prepositions like their complement to be in the accusative. So I shouldn’t have written between you and I. I should have written between you and me.

Although plenty of English-speakers don’t bristle at errors like that, you lot are different. You’re a bunch of writers. You’re attuned to these issues and mostly don’t make them in your own writing. I’m not sure I get enraged by such errors any more, but I do certainly notice them. Every time.

And, look, I think it’s still safe to say that using a nominative pronoun after a preposition is an error. But let’s just remember what that means. All we’re really saying is that most language users still use the preposition + accusative structure. Not to do so, places us – somewhat – as a non-standard user.

But for how much longer? The who / whom distinction (another nominative / accusative issue) has largely vanished from our language. Or, to be more accurate, it’s just started to get awkward. Take a look at these examples:

The agent, to whom the manuscript was sent …

The agent, to who the manuscript was sent …

The agent who the manuscript was sent to

Do you like any of them? The first is technically correct, if we’re being old-school about it, but it does have a somewhat fussy flavour today. The second option just sounds wrong. The third just sounds clumsy. So mostly, today, we’d rewrite any of those options as The agent who received the manuscript. By making the agent the subject again, we can get rid of that correct-but-fusty to whom construction.

So in the end? Well, I suppose I still adhere to the kind of grammar rules which remain largely unbroken, by most people, even in informal contexts. So I wouldn’t say “between you and I” because that strikes my ear as wrong. But I’m more than happy to shatter other rules (the sentence fragment one, say) and bend others (the which/that distinction, for example.)

And you don’t have to do as I do. Your job is to find your own writing voice and tune that in a way that suits you best. If that involves technically excellent grammar, then great. If it doesn’t, that’s really fine too.”

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