Grammar Guerrilla: Me, Him, Idiocracy, And The Matrix

To anticipate an objection: yes, language evolves but language also has a fixed core. There is a connection between language and the nature of things. There is a distinction in nature between the subject and the object. The languages with which I am familiar signal, in one way or another, a distinction between the subject and the object. In modern, colloquial American usage and perhaps in some British contexts, however, the distinction between the grammatical subject and the grammatical object is being blurred.

Such blurring has two unhappy consequences: 1) it makes communication more difficult because blurring the subject and object is inherently confusing; 2) it makes the speaker or writer appear to be ignorant. The late-modern dark ages has not swallowed everyone. There are still decision makers (e.g., employers, supervisors, teachers) who know what is correct, who will notice if you speak or write poor English. As the old commercial said, “people judge you by the words you use.”

The good news is that this error is easily remedied and when you distinguish between the subject and object of the verb you will instantly appear to be more intelligent than those who do not.

In grammar, the subject is the noun (e.g., person or thing) doing the action. “Billy threw the ball.” Billy is the subject. The direct object is the ball. Billy, the subject, is acting upon the ball. The ball is the direct object of Billy’s action. Now, substitute a pronoun. In English we have different pronouns to express the subject and the object. One should not write, “Him threw the ball.” When we substitute a pronoun for Billy, we want to substitute one that signals the same function, the subject. Thus, “He threw the ball.”

It is even more important to use the correct pronouns when there are two of them. The reader or listener is depending upon the writer or speaker to get things right. Consider this abomination: “Me and him went to the store.” There are two problems here. The first is a matter of politeness. When there is a compound subject, it is impolite to begin the sentence with one’s self. Second, the subject of the verb “to go” (went) is he and I. This, the correct way of expressing this sentence is, “He and I went to the store.” This is not mere pedantry. There is a reason for making the distinction.

In English he is the subject form of the third person singular pronoun. I is the subject form of the first person singular. In more highly inflected languages this form is known as the “case.” In Latin and Greek the subject is usually expressed in the nominative case. The Latin word for name is nomen. The nominative case refers to the name. In our example above he replaces Billy’s name. The direct object is the accusative case. Again, the roots are in Latin. Our adjective accusative is derived the Latin noun causa (case).

Let’s say that Billy is in a really foul mood. Let’s substitute Joey for the ball. “Billy threw Joey out of the window.” Joey is the direct object of Billy’s action. Joey is also facing six weeks of physical therapy and Billy is facing 7 to 10 years grievous bodily injury but I digress. Now,  substitute a pronoun for Joey. Since he is the direct object of Billy’s wrath and action then his pronoun must be in the accusative or direct object case. Thus, “Billy and Joey were arguing. Suddenly, Billy threw him out of the window.” Since the subjects were made explicit in the first sentence it is possible, perhaps even elegant, to replace their names with pronouns. Thus the second sentence can be “He threw him out of the window.” We know who threw whom because he stands for Billy and him stands for Joey.

If, however, we replace Billy with the accusative (direct object) pronoun, the sentence becomes confusing. “Suddenly, him threw him out of the window.” “Him threw he of out of the window” fails too. Who threw whom? It’s not clear. Perhaps Joey, unbeknownst to Billy, had studied Krav Maga and, using his skills, gained the upper hand and threw Billy out of the window? As the revised sentence stands we shall never know.

This gets us back to the ugly and unnecessary construction “him and me went to the store.” One may object that it is clear enough.  In this case, depending upon the circumstances, it might be reasonably clear who is going to the store but it is also clear that the speaker does not know the difference between subject and object pronouns. Ordinarily, communication does not end after one sentence. If a speaker or writer is willing to ignore the distinction between subject and object pronouns here, what happens when he tries to relate the epic struggle between Billy and Joey? Can he be trusted to get the story right? Perhaps not. Further, if he knows the difference between the subject and object pronoun why doesn’t he use the correct pronouns to tell us who is going to the store?

One reason why people increasingly seem unwilling or unable to distinguish between the subject and object of a verb is because the geniuses who have controlled education for the last 60 years in the USA did not think it important for students to learn the principal language behind English, Latin. Because they lack any education in the principal language behind ours, people assume that our grammar is arbitrary and may be changed at will.  As a consequence of the boneheaded decision to omit Latin from public education we may never know what happened to Billy and Joey.

Another reason is that we have become increasingly confused as a culture as to the actual distinction between subject and object. In our time the subject (I) has swallowed all. I am the sovereign reader/receiver of all texts. I get to say what they mean, even if that alleged meaning has nothing to do with what the author intended. This triumph of the subject is known as subjectivism and it is having disastrous consequences across the culture.

Finally, the loss of the subject/object distinction in ordinary speech is a small signal of what seems like a growing realization of some of the prophecies contained in the 2006 film, Idiocracy. It was not many years ago that grammar school children were expected to know the difference between he and him. Today I find myself correcting graduate students on fundamental matters of grammar. What are elementary school and middle schools teaching? One suspects that it has more to do with the subjective (e.g., feelings and self-esteem) than the objective (grammar, logic, and rhetoric).

Language changes but it must have a core or it cannot function. It must reflect the nature of things. The relation between language and nature is not purely arbitrary or nominal. If there is a subject/object distinction, and there is, then that distinction must be reflected in the language. Idiocracy might have been a prophecy but The Matrix was just a film. There is an objective reality. We are not the window and Billy is not Joey and our pronouns should reflect that reality.

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  1. You mean with the kind of education your kids get, Paul might have written the imperative “Tychicus have me sent to Ephesus” when he meant the indicative “Tychicus have I sent to Ephesus”?
    Over here I have not come across much of using the accusative form as the subject of a verb, but it has long been colloquial to express PREDICATES and predicate role pronouns in the accusative, the grammatically correct nominative being seen as posh – though as far as I know, the nursery rhyme has not been altered to “‘Me.’, said the sparrow, ‘With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin'”. By further illustration, let me quote a radio skit of, I think, the ’50s: They were doing a play and repeating lines as they would be said on each of the 4 BBC channels of the time (In increasing order of highbrowedness they were The Light Programme, Network Three, The Home Service, and the Third Programme). In reply to something like “Who left the light on?”, the reply was “Home Service: It was me; Light Programme: It was me; Network Three: It was me; Third Programme:” (in a weightier voice) “It was I”.

  2. A good case could be made that the principal language behind English is not Latin, but German (or the Germanic family of languages). But I want stand on principle. You and me may disagree about that.

  3. Oops, I meant to write “I want stand on principal.” There are many things worse than a grammar joke gone wrong, but still it ain’t a pretty sight.

    • What did the principal do to deserve that? Even if he made up the grammar curriculum, and even if you’re barefoot, that seems harsh.

    • Frank, what stand DO you want on the principal? A bandstand would surely crush him!

  4. I believe I agree with what I understand to be your main point, that sloppy grammar effects sloppy argumentation, but I find myself disagreeing with some of your examples.

    The loss of “ye” and the leveling of the second-person subject and object pronouns to “you” doesn’t affect understanding, because English requires SVO (subject-verb-object) structure, so the subject and object of the verbs are always understood, if only by word order rather than by declension.

    “Him through him out the window” may be currently ungrammatical (and I affirm it should be taught as such), but the meaning is still even then understood because the English word order requires that the subject precede the verb even when it is an ungrammatical subject. I am unable to understand why the masculine third-person pronoun shouldn’t level to “him” for the subject and the object as “you” did since the distinction is preserved in word order, except (providential) socio-historical accident.

    What about the gender differences in the third-person singular? Many languages do not have this feature, yet it is natural. But the Romance languages have gender differentiation in the plural third-person, which is also natural, which English does not. The Turkic languages have evidentiality (“I saw it” vs “I heard about it” vs “It is generally known”) as a feature, and this seems to be as natural as the subject-object distinction.

    I guess my concern is not so much language change, which you’ve addressed, as it is with what constitutes the core reflecting nature adequately. How should/do we decide which languages or, perhaps more relevantly, dialects meet these criteria?

    I realize sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics are not the point of this blog, but this is the first substantial disagreement I’ve had with something of yours I’ve read, and I’m wondering what resources, influences, etc, you’ve used to come to these conclusions.

    • My ungrammatical sentence should read “Him threw him…”

      It’s always good to have a few grammatical errors in a post on grammatical errors.

    • My influences are my high school grammar teacher, a lot of English language writers from the 16th, 17th, and 20th centuries as well as a number of popular and semi popular writers on grammar.

      I understand that language changes. That is why I wrote what I did. I also understand that there is a connection between language and nature and that nominalism fails to explain that relationship.

    • No, James, an object-verb-subject word order in English makes perfect syntax in some cases. I gave two examples in my post above (In case you are disposed to argue that the the verb is the past participle rather than the auxiliary verb, I must point out that “Tychicus sent I to Ephesus” is also good English syntax).
      I know about the “I heard about it” in Turkic languages, but how is “I saw it” distinguished from “It is generally known”? You’re not referring to the way the putative “I heard it happened” is changed to the perfect (tense) “It has happened” (and this is only possible in the third person) by putting a “-tir” after the “-miş” (as in the Trinitarian Bible Society Turkish translation of tetelestai – the other Turkish translations leave it in the simple past narrative, i.e., “It finished”), are you?
      Having written the above, I wonder whether modern Americans still make use of the perfect tense (e.g., saying “He just died” when the English would say “He’s just died”).

    • John, while it is true that OVS word order can be be used, or even OSV (though I’m struggling to think of an example without a predicate nominative “He it was who….”), these are semantically marked forms of syntax for purposes of emphasis; non-SVO word order is strictly ungrammatical in many English dialects and archaic/odd in most others: Pittsburghese and AAVE as just two examples.

      This American at least would say “He just died” for “He simply died” and “He’s just died” for “He has very recently died”.

      I’m not familiar with the specific paradigms of the Turkic languages for expressing evidentiality. I was simply using it as an example of a relatively rare grammatical feature not found in English. From what you’re saying it seems that it’s somewhat in the same realm as the interactions between tense and aspect, in Turkish at least?

      Dr Clark, my concern is essentially that we can use what you are saying as a tool of prejudice. If we take African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as an example, there are many AAVE grammatical structures and paradigms that are ungrammatical in standard general American English (GA). Of course, native AAVE-speakers should learn GA as their national lingua franca and as one expression of the global lingua franca. The economic, legal and societal structures of the USA require understanding and using GA. Not to teach GA to speakers of other dialects would be irresponsible.

      But beyond that, at what point does it become prejudicial (not necessarily racist, though that may also play a part for some people) to insist on GA grammatical logic? There is an internal grammatical logic to AAVE that is inconsistent with the internal logic of GA, eg the use of double negatives. From my perspective that’s merely language change. Yet I have heard people using statements similar to what you have said as a basis to argue that, no, AAVE is not just an instance of language change, but is actually deficient or degenerate English. I have not understood you to be arguing that. I simply want to clarify my concerns.

      Thank you both for responding to my thoughts!

  5. This post reminds me of an episode from the early 70’s: A young lady who lived just down the street from us rang our door bell one morning. She said that she knew that I was a touch typist and wondered if I would transfer the contents of some hand written papers she was holding onto typed pages. She said they were from her boy friend and were for a term paper due in a course he was taking. I agreed and took the half dozen sheets into the house.

    Glancing at the writing, it became imediately evident that he was wanting more than just a typewritten paper; he needed editing! The grammar was absolutely atrocious. So I edited and typed, as requested, returning a finished product that barely resembled the original. Now, here’s the kicker: he was senior class at a teaching university (training students to become teachers)! Later I learned that he was a star player on the school’s baseball team and had already accepted for a physical education/coaching position at one of the state’s high schools. Absolutely amazing.

    • In my UK Public School in the 50s-60s it was seen as OK for people like the PE master and the school cadet corps sergeant major to be perceived as somewhat uneducated – enhanced their macho image or something. So perhaps not so absolutely amazing?
      It has come to light recently that the school janitor, whom we nicknamed “Drains” and thought something of a joke, had been a major war hero.

  6. John – maybe so, but I find it difficult to accept poor grammar from someone who has a college degree, regardless of their major. Sure, there are athletes who graduate with “nominal” degrees after coasting through school on a scholarship and a token education (although *that* should not be the case, either). But I see too many young people nowadays who can barely compose properly written communication of any kind. And all of this social media nonsense certainly isn’t helping to make things any better.

    • But Cam, YOU were writing about the ’70s, when the guy who composed that song about “I could pass that football like nothin’ you have ever seen” was still alive.

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