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Between you and I - a word on grammar

Today’s email landed in two quite distinct set of inboxes.

One group of inboxes belongs to a group of (friendly, relaxed, good-spirited) people who thought, “Oh, look, here’s another email from Harry.”

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.

Another example of a grammar which still exists, but patchily, is the which / that distinction. Technically, the word that introduces a clause which defines the noun being described. Like this:

Manuscripts which contain murders are always excellent.

That sentence wouldn’t be right if you took out the “which contain murders” bit. Clearly, that sentence is saying that the presence of murders in a manuscript is what guarantees their excellence. In these, definitional-type clauses, you always need a which.

Other times, it’s clear that a clause is just adding information which could, in principle, be dropped entirely:

Manuscripts, which authors have slaved over, are wasted on agents.

That sentence is essentially saying “manuscripts are wasted on agents”. You could drop the clause about authors’ hard work and the essential meaning remains unchanged.

So OK, we know the difference between which and that. Whether or not you knew the rule, you probably don’t mess up in a really obvious way.

But, but, but …

A lot of rules look clear on the pages of a grammar book but dissolve on contact with reality. Take a look at these actual examples from my current work in progress:

Peter looks at me with that soft-eyed affection which is the special preserve of older uniformed officers contemplating their younger, bossier detective colleagues.

I spark up. Inhale. Open the window enough that I can blow smoke through the dark slot which leads outside.

I park down by the beach which, out of season, has an abandoned quality. Windswept and forlorn. 

The first of those examples is clearly correct in terms of the grammar. The police sergeant’s affectionate look is defined by the (sarcastic) clause that follows, so I got that right.

The next one? Well, I don’t really know. You could argue that the “which leads outside” is definitional, but you could argue it the other way too. And I know for a fact I wasn’t guided by grammar in making the choice there, but sound. The sentence had just had a double th-sound (“through the“) and it probably didn’t need another. So I went with which.

And the last example – the beach one – is just wrong. There’s only one beach, so the clause which talks about its abandoned quality can’t be defining it.

I’d be very surprised indeed if a British copy-editor were to correct that mistake, however. We Brits are just more relaxed issues like that. A good American copy-editor probably would correct it, however. US copy-editing standards are more demanding and more precise. (Another example? Brits will often use a plural pronoun, they, to refer to a singular noun, like the government. It's not that Americans never do that, but they do it so little, it still strikes plenty of American ears as simply wrong.)

But you know what? I still like the way I wrote that sentence about the beach, even with that “erroneous” which. It just sounds better to me.

The fact is, I trash conventional grammar all the time:

I use a lot of sentence fragments.

I start sentences with conjunctions.

I drop the subject from verbs.

I use words that don’t exist.

I often do all that, back to back, in one sweet jam of Offences Against Grammar. Here’s one twenty-four-word excerpt that merrily commits enough crimes to send the Grammar Police into a spin:

Clean shirt. Early start.

I make tea. Fire up my computer. Kick my shoes off, because my feet aren’t in a shoey mood.

And 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.)

You, of course, 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.

About once a month I get an email from someone who frets that they don’t know enough formal grammar to be a writer. And to hell with that. If it sounds right, it is right. That’s all you really need to know.

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Comments (23)
  • I think I've heard the Queen say "My family and I"... 

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    • Isn't context key though? 

      "My family and I wish you well." Yes. 

      "Spend Christmas with my family and I." No. 

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    • The key thing, my dear fellow writers, is not necessarily to write grammatically perfect prose. It is (and yes, the sentence break was deliberate) to write in a voice which pulls the reader into the mind of a protagonist. Makes their world so real the reader doesn't have to recalibrate. That usually means hinting at how that protagonist would speak, even when there's no dialogue involved. So how many people actually talk like an Oxbridge/Ivy League don? See? 

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      • I don't believe I could lower myself to their level.

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        • Ha...ha...ha...! 

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        • I wonder if the widespread use of "X and I" comes from the title of the musical "The King and I". To me this excellent title has an hint of irony about it, the "I" implying that "I'm as important as the King" and when put together as a pair it works wonders. It wouldn't be the same if it was "The King and me" would it? Just a thought.

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          • It’s them, not us!

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            • Naturally 😁 

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              • You're not missing anything. It really is that simple!

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              • My response to:

                The agent, to whom the manuscript was sent. 

                The agent, to who the manuscript was sent. 

                The agent who the manuscript was sent to. 

                Would be "The agent to which the manuscript was sent." because I feel like "The agent who received the manuscript." focuses on the receiving rather than the sending, which isn't something covered in the original phrases. 

                So there's that, haha. Probably spent more focus on this today than my own writing, bad Nick.. 

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                • Stephen Pinker's The Sense of Style is in my view the best guide to how grammatical rules help or hinder comprehension (which is, after all, the bottom line). Certainly more useful and modern, not to mention readable, than Strunk & White and Fowler.

                  And just to get it off my chest while I'm here, I hate americanese that says "the waiter that came to my table" rather than " the waiter who came to my table." So there.

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