Musings on subjects and conjunctions


This issue comes up all the time on grammar blogs and in grammar books: which form of a pronoun should go into conjoined subjects? For example, I want to know which of these to choose:

  • Kimberly and I defended the fort.
  • Kimberly and me defended the fort.

Both of these sentence types are extremely common, and there is no semantic difference between them. In my opinion, there is ample evidence that both are grammatical. However, grammar sticklers get really nervous when there’s too much variability in English, so it has been declared that Kimberly and I is the only possible correct option. The justification is always the same: “Take out the other word and see which sentence sounds better”. In this case, I remove Kimberly:

  • I defended the fort.
  • *Me defended the fort.

Since *me defended is ungrammatical, then you should say Kimberly and I defended. The technical term for what we’re looking at here is grammatical case. The pronoun “I” is a 1st person singular pronoun in the nominative case (typically used for subjects) and “me” is the same pronoun in accaustive case (typically used for objects, and sometimes even called ‘objective’ case).

The argument seems pretty solid, but I’d like to pick it apart a little bit and argue for the other side. As a general rule, you should be wary about taking sentence chunks out of context and comparing them. You can’t just cut off some words from the start of sentence, and expect the remainder to still make sense. For example, I think we can agree that *me fired is ungrammatical, but inside the sentence My boss wants me fired it’s completely fine.

The same thing is going on with the conjoined subjects example. I selected a sentence to make things work out for me. Let’s make the verb a present progressive, instead of a simple past and see what happens.

  • Kimberly and I are defending the fort.
  • Kimberly and me are defending the fort.
  • *I are defending the fort.
  • *Me are defending the fort.

Oops! The test fails, and both of my sentences are ungrammatical this time. What happened? In order to for this to work, we also have to change the auxiliary verb to make it “I am defending” vs. “Me am defending”. Now there’s a clear winner, but we’ve done more than just remove some words. We also changed a word, just to get a desired outcome. Is this a fair comparison?

Let’s explore this a little more. The form of the verb “to be” depends on the grammatical number and person of the subject. The noun Kimberly, on its own, is a 3rd person singular noun (“Kimberly is defending”), while the pronoun is a 1st person singular (“I am defending”). When they are joined by a conjunction, however, this goes out of the window, and together they count as 3rd person plural, which is why the verb changes to “are defending”.

So here is my question:
If nouns can have a different grammatical number and person inside and outside of a conjunction, then why can’t they also have different grammatical case?

Seriously though – is there something I don’t know about the traditional analysis of English that requires case never to change? Or is there something missing from my own argument here? My instinct as a linguist is that sentences of the type “Kimberly and me” can’t be wrong – they are just too widespread.

I should be more clear. I’m saying that “Kimberly and me” is a grammatical sentence, but I’m not making an argument for how you, or anyone else, ought to use language. My claim is more like this: there exists a substantial number of individuals whose natural behaviour is to produce sentences of this sort, and therefore we ought to recognize this as normal variation in English usage. In other words, accepting that this is grammatical means that we all stop pointing it out and complaining about it. Some people speak a variety of English with a rule that says “Subjects are always in the nominative”, others have a rule that says “Pronoun subjects inside conjunctions take accusative case”.

If there is resistance against this idea, it is surely due to the tendency to treat English as a monolithic entity, some gigantic ball of words and rules shared by everyone who speaks it. I think that an extreme form of this view is what underlies a lot of really annoying behaviour: grammar nazis, pedants, and language purists all think like this. They think that because we all use the “same” English (namely, theirs), people who speak differently are wrong, rather than simply different. They also take personal offence to language change and language variation, because they feel like it is their own language being affected by what other people are doing. It’s not, of course. Other people’s language is their business. It’s possible for us all to get along without total uniformity in our speech.

In fact, no two people speak English in exactly the same way. Rather than a big ball, imagine every person’s individual variety of English (an “idiolect”) as a circle. Our circles overlap for the most part, creating what appears to be one huge singular unit, with blurry edges. Most of the time when we interact with someone else who also “speaks English”, we’re in the overlap zone and we don’t notice. But there are edge cases where our idiolects differ and the circles don’t overlap, and we notice that the other person doesn’t quite talk like us. The use of grammatical case inside conjunctions is one example of where people don’t always overlap, but is that really so terrible? We should accept variation as a natural part of language, not as a something deviant to seek out and destroy.

Think of it like this: You aren’t just speaking English, you’re contributing to it. Don’t under-value that contribution.

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7 Comments

Filed under Linguistics

7 responses to “Musings on subjects and conjunctions

  1. Perhaps, ultimately, at least with writing, what really matters is the flow and rhythm of the words. An idea I’ve always liked is that, unless you are using language stylistically as part of the art, text should be as transparent as possible so as not to distract the reader from the content. To that end, choice of “I” or “me” can depend strictly on how it sounds or flows. That transparency obviously depends on your audience.

    To the extent that grammar is descriptive, I completely agree grammar follows use. My question is: To what degree should grammar be normative? Clear and precise communication seems to require a set of, if not rules, at least guidelines. Perhaps this is the difference between formal writing and casual writing?

    As with dictionaries, there is an inertia to formal grammar. Both evolve with society, but both tend to lag everyday usage. That may be why formal use of language often sounds stilted or old-fashioned. But what is the alternative when we seek absolute clarity and precision?

    Liked by 1 person

    • “My question is: To what degree should grammar be normative?”

      That’s an excellent question, and something I think about all the time. There are definitely cases where imposing some grammar is justified. In particular, in professions like writing and editing, it makes sense to have a standard of language use that everyone follows when doing their jobs. That said, the standard need not affect their language use outside of a professional context, and we shouldn’t think of anyone’s standard as the one-and-only correct way to use English.

      In my own case, I actually work in the field of language assessment (i.e. second language proficiency testing), and I spend a lot of time judging other people’s language based on a standard that was created by the company I work for. We don’t assess people based on their ability to use grammar “correctly”, however, it’s more about their ability to accomplish things with language. I want to know if someone can make a request, apologize, give directions, describe a picture, establish a date and time for a meeting, etc. I am only interested in their grammar insofar as it affect their ability to do these things. For example, if someone says “we will be meet Thursday”, I can ignore that grammar mistake because it generally accomplishes the goal of setting a meeting day. On the other hand, “we will have met Thursday” has correct grammar, but is actually more of a problematic sentence, because in the context of setting a meeting date, using the perfective is confusing and unnatural.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Its not just grammar (slightly off topic) that overlap among individuals, words too, hold a different meaning for people.
    For example, ‘Awesome’ means awe inspiring. An Earthquake can be described as awesome, and it would be perfectly sound for you to do so, yet the many of the population are unaware of this.
    Other words, grammar structures used by people are shaped by their own idea of words. While ‘Awesome’ can be used as an example where the perceptions have gone wildly off where they should be, the usual norm seems to be that there do exist disparities of our own understanding of any language.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Having read your post, I wonder if English is so relatively non-monolithic, because it’s strongly analytic. My native language is Russian, and “Kimberly and me defended the fort” offends my ear a bit, but perhaps it’s because in my brain the object vs. subject cases are more distinct than necessary for English… Thank you for making me think :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: “Do I?!” A Post About Cases, Blues, Brains, and Languages | Love letters understated

  5. “Kimberly and I,” because ​Kimberly defended the fort, and I defended the fort. However, “​ME” didn’t defend anything.

    Like

  6. “Kimberly and me are defending the fort” is grammatical but unidiomatic. It should be “Me and Kimberly are defending the fort”.

    “Kimberly and I are defending the fort” is, of course, stuffed-shirt nonsense.

    Like

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