Why 'you and me' is just as proper as 'you and I'
Social media has made it terribly easy for us to create versions of ourselves as we’d like to be seen. We self-edit, sharing our best bits and implying even better. But this is nothing new. In the days before tweets, posts, grams, tiks or toks, we had airs and graces.
One popular way to put on airs and graces was to always be “speaking proper”.
I can’t be sure whether the irony in this phrase’s grammar was clear to every parent using it. Proper is an adjective. Adjectives describe nouns, not verbs. Speaking is a verb. As such, it should be modified by the adverb, ‘properly’.
Up and down the country, little people associated these words with a hollow thud. Mum or Dad would give a swipe to the back of the head as they drummed politeness into their offspring. “Speak proper” said that the language which was fine to use at home was to be corrected when in polite company.
“Dunno”, I reply to Aunty Winnie’s questions about my 8-year-old self’s career plans.
“Speak proper.” Thud.
“Ta for the lolly”, I say to the kindly dentist for the post check-up lollipop. (More irony.)
“Speak proper.” Thud.
To speak proper was to sound posh. Well, not exactly posh. More wannabe middle-class. Like the family down the road. The ones with the clean net curtains.
The Long-form ‘Us’
In our house, such admonishment was guaranteed when talking about us.
More specifically, when talking about you, him, my friend Paul, Dad, or my sister… and me.
This would at once be semi-echoed by, for example, “my sister and |”. The echo was my mother’s voice. The bold and underline could be clearly heard in her tone.
And so we stood corrected. We never thought to ask why I was better than me. The echo followed me through childhood. I would add it myself when Mother wasn’t around.
What we learn through this sort of repetitive (mis)teaching leads us to hypercorrect. Today, we remember the rule and the punishment for non-adherence. Accepting it as hard fact, we automatically replace …and me with …and I. Always. We rarely give it a second thought.
Only it turns out I wasn’t always right. Me was just as correct too.
And Me or and I?
‘…and me’ is the appropriate grammar just as often as ‘…and I’.
It all depends on context.
All pronouns have both an object and a subject form. When the pronoun is doing the doing, it is the subject of the sentence. When the doing is being done to, or by, the pronoun, it’s the object.
When you and another person are playing the same role in a sentence – you are both either doing or being done – you should both take the equivalent form of either subject or object.
Glancing at the table above, it’s easy to see that he, she, or they should always be accompanied with I. Whereas him, her, or them should always partner me. (As you doesn’t change there are less clues, but more help to come with this later.)
Who Does the Shopping?
Let’s look at the shopping arrangements I have* with my flatmates**.
In the following sentences, xx are the subjects of the sentence. yy are the objects. Note I have only used them as a plural. For the non-gender specific first-person form, the same rules apply.
I live with Sally and Jimmy.
They hate being near each other. They also hate shopping alone. They don’t
Jimmy runs out of things quickly. So, he and I go to the shops almost every
Sally plans. Every Sunday, the shopping is done by her and me.
As you might imagine, buying items for the house is tricky.
Sally and I pick up the canned goods.
Cleaning products are bought by Jimmy and me.
I think they are taking advantage of me.
The costs are not being evenly shared between Jimmy, Sally and me.
Tomorrow, he, she and I will be discussing this together.
* I do not have these shopping arrangements.
** I do not have flatmates.
Two Quick Tips
If you aren’t sure whether you are using a subject or object, there are two ways to sense check that should make it simpler. Especially for those whose native language is English.
TIP ONE: Forget your friends
Remove everyone else from the sentence. Say it out loud. In almost all instances, one version will sound right, and one will sound very wrong.
Would you say
“I go to the shops…” or
“Me go to the shops…”?
Would canned goods be
“…picked up by I” or
“…picked up by me”?
TIP TWO: Go shorthand
You are using a longhand form of the first-person plural. Make it shorthand again. Substitute all the pronouns with either we or us. Say it aloud.
Would it be
"...the shopping is done by we" or
"...the shopping is done by us"?
Will tomorrow's event see
"We will be discussing this together" or
"Us will be discussing this together"?
Only one will hopefully sound correct each time. This gives you the correct column from which to select the correct corresponding pronouns for all of you individually.
Better Than Me
Comparatives are a slight diversion to topic but as they cause a similar problem, let’s take a moment to clarify.
Jimmy is 6’3”. I am a mere (but perfectly adequate) 5’8”.
Is Jimmy taller than me?
Or is Jimmy taller than I?
This is one of those situations where the most used version is not the one most deemed correct.
The common ‘mistake’ – in terms of grammar's rules – comes from the position of the pronoun in such comparative statements. We see it at the end of the sentence and think of it as the object. But it isn’t.
We are comparing how tall Jimmy is with how tall I am. Being naturally lazy, we abbreviate this thought and imply the missing verb. The fully formed sentence would be “Is Jimmy taller than I (am tall)?”
Though we have removed the clunkiness from the question, the pronoun role remains the same. If I am tall, I am doing the doing. Making me and Jimmy both the subjects. Leading to the question
“Is Jimmy taller than I?”
Back to Real Life
Of course, nothing is wrong per se.
Telling your homies that "me and him are going to have words” is perfectly acceptable. As is warning people not to think they “are better than me”.
Nothing I am saying should be taken as a lecture on right or wrong.
But if you ever feel yourself ready to tell that kid to speak proper, take a beat.
Maybe they are speaking perfectly properly already.