Valediction to 20th Century English Grammar

The rest of it is the [meeting] of the minds and what is going to happen between you and I is the mutual agreements you and I create and that’s the relationship between you and I.
(don Miguel Ruiz Jr interview, author of The Four Agreements)

She and me share the same birth date.
(a comment on reddit)

As a voice from the previous millennium, I come before you to say goodbye to some handy grammatical distinctions that were used most of my life by many 20th century English speakers, including my parents and peers, preachers, politicians, plumbers, Pete Townshend, card sharks, journalists, swindlers, and writers.

Languages tend to become simplified over time. Like death, this simplification of language must be accepted. I’ve been told that language finally reaches a point of oversimplification where its speakers eventually find they must nuance it again. We are not at the re-nuancing stage yet. Meanwhile, most people born in the 1970s and before probably miss the vanishing distinctions, while some millennials also notice the change, as do even fewer members of generation Z.

If the two quotes at the top of this article made you cringe, you were probably born in the 70s or before. Or you are from a school or parents that deliberately taught formal English, often at the cost of overcorrecting you.

If you didn’t cringe then you don’t miss these lost distinctions. Don’t worry: this article does not intend to make you miss them. It invites you to attend, only briefly, their memorial service. After all, I don’t use Shakespeare’s inflections, except when I quote him with utterances such as, “It hath made me mad” (a serviceable quote).

In short, I come to bury inflections, not to praise them.

Attending a total stranger’s memorial service is like reading this article without knowing what we mean by the subjective and objective case. I’m no grammarian, and I doubt you are, so I’ll make this as quick and painless as possible.

Human knowledge is built on thoughts that contain an explicit or implied subject and predicate. We say something about something. Or put differently, the predicate tells us something about the subject. In the New Testament sentence, “God (subject) is love (predicate),” we learn that love is an attribute of God.

Now I must break the predicate into two pieces: the verb (which we all understand) and the object (which is losing its inflectional forms). Lincoln famously says, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated [the battlefield] . . . .” He means that the men (subject) have consecrated (verb) the battlefield (object) to make it hallowed ground. The verb + the object = the predicate. Here’s another example: E=MC². Energy (subject) equals (verb) the-speed-of-light-squared (predicate nominative).

Let me clarify the last one, promising we won’t wade in the weeds much longer. Usually the subject does something to its object, such as my wish that this article may enlighten some of its readers and entertain others. But at times the subject also appears again in the predicate, which is why, when you answer your phone and a voice asks if Lincoln is there, you of the 20th century should say, “This is he” (though most of us now say “This is him”).

Now we cut to the chase. The subject, I think is clear… it’s usually the thing that does the action. The action itself is the predicate and is usually made up of a verb and an object. So when “fate (subject) gives (verb) you (one indirect object) and me (another indirect object) a second chance (direct object), the 20th century English speaker uses me because that pronoun is in the objective case. One final example: “After the car almost hit him and me, he and I called the cops” In the introductory clause, the car (subject) hit (verb) him (object) and me (object). In the main clause, he (subject) and I (subjective case of the pronoun) called (verb) the cops (object).

Whew. That’s a lot for 2024 or whenever you get around to reading this.

Can you now see why the quotes at the top of the page made me cringe? These quotes are by no means unusual these days. I chose the first one because it came from a published writer in 2013. I chose the second because I was simply looking for an example and not from one of the dozens of web pages on how people should know the difference between “he and I” and “him and me.” I of course agree with the web pages, but suspect they are generally preaching to the choir, unlike this valediction. As a valedictorian, I’m just clarifying the thing we are saying goodbye to.

Why is this subject-object distinction important? Or why was it? If one reads quickly or hears only part of a 20th century sentence, it is likely that some things are made clear immediately. If “I” or “he/she” is heard, one knows that entity is responsible for the action…is the doer. If “me” or “him/her” is heard, one knows that something happened to or was attributed to the guy or the gal or both…that the “him” or the “her” was the recipient of the action or attribution.

It’s that simple…in the 20th century you could miss parts of the sentence and possibly get the gist of it. Now, if I hear “you and me” I think we are receiving or something. But as often as not, these days “you and me” is used as the subject, as in “You and me, having gone through the school of hard knocks most of our live, know better, don’t we?” If the sentence started instead, “You and I, having gone through…” I would know by the third word that the subject of the sentence had been established.

If this last point didn’t register, you should thank God that you will probably outlive me by several decades, just as I’ve outlived 20th century grammar.

Let’s close on a cheery note, moving from grammar (how natural language is structured) to usage (how certain conventions add nuances to the meaning of a sentence). A word can be grammatical but unconventional (and usually less clear) in its usage. The following illustrates this point: “My canine learned to heel without a leash.” Perfectly grammatical, but likely to make people think you’ve been in the police force a bit too long. If you want to make friends and influence people more often, you should have said, “My dog learned to heel without a leash.”

The example I truly miss and am giving life-support to for as long as I can is the distinction between “less” and “fewer.” In its heyday, the distinction let us know extra information before the sentence was completed. “There are fewer…” led us to expect items, such as chickens, pennies, gallons, or hours. “There is less…” led us to expect a quantity, such as livestock, money, fuel, or time. It was crystal clear from the outset. Now, by and large, “less” is used in both instances, and, being a bit sensitive to this difference, I won’t even illustrate it here. Turn on the nightly news and you’ll soon notice it.

To conclude with a few generalizations, I suggest that the advantage of inflections is greater specificity, while the disadvantage is inconvenience (one must learn the roles of specific pronouns). Similarly, the advantage of prescribed usage is, again, specificity, while the disadvantage is either inconvenience (“less” is one syllable, while “fewer” is two), or, more significantly, a giant step away from chauvinism. Far too many people of different classes and ethnicities have been deemed inferior as a result of differences of usage.

As I said, I do not come to praise 20th century grammar (and, really, the bulk of it survives), I come to bury the parts that have been lost. If I were to say that “I could care less” whether you use pronouns carefully, I would be telling the truth, whereas if I said “I couldn’t care less,” I’d be lying.[1]

Older woman correcting grammar in public place




[1] For those whose thirst for lost distinctions is not yet quenched, the example I miss but whose death was inevitable is the distinction between “lie” and “lay.”

Though already buried and perhaps decomposed, this particular distinction deserves clarification, simply so we can understand a bit of the still useful distinction between “intransitive” and “transitive.” In earlier times, lie was used intransitively, meaning the verb had no object: “I will lie down for a nap, yesterday I lay down for a nap, in the past I have lain down for naps.” Meanwhile, “lay” (in the present tense) was used transitively, meaning the verb had an object: “The hen lays an egg each morning, the hen laid two eggs yesterday.

But now, by and large, “lie” is no longer used to convey one’s position, only one’s twisting of the truth. Instead, “I lay down in the sun,” is perfectly acceptable, especially if you are young.


Publishing Info
This post was first published on: June 20, 2024. If this article is significantly updated, the publication date beneath the title may change, just as it might change in order to bring current posts to the top (or bottom) of the directory.

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