Grammar Guerilla: “Me And Him Talked About It”

Guerilla-GorillaThe other day a sports-talk show host, whom I enjoy, said, “Me and him talked about it.” I was taken aback. As I understand it, this fellow is the child of a school teacher who would surely not permit him to speak that way at home. Further, the host is a graduate of a respected private Jesuit university with a strong academic reputation. He was educated in the Lincoln Public Schools, in the old-money, country-club part of town. Yet, there he was, on the radio, speaking to thousands of listeners (it is a highly-rated show) butchering the English language for all of us to hear. I assume that talk show hosts (and their callers) are a reflection of  trends in the broader culture.

There are two errors here. First is a matter of politeness and the second a matter of grammar. As a matter of courtesy, it is considered polite to place the other person first, in a position of prominence in the sentence. Thus it should be “He and I talked about it.” In English (as in other languages), when we want to call attention to something, we place it first or early in the sentence when possible.

Second, notice that the case of the two pronouns is wrong. We do not talk much about cases in English anymore but they exist. If you had Latin, Greek, or perhaps Spanish, you learned about cases. They exist in English. The subject case describes the subject of the verb. In the sentence “He and I talked” we have a compound subject, “He and I…”. The subject of the verb is the noun (person, place, or thing) doing the action. In this instance, the action (verb) is talking. The pronouns him and me are in the object case. As you might guess, the object is the recipient of the action. It might be a direct object or an indirect object. “His grammar was so poor the only thing to do was to defenestrate him.” In this instance him is the object of defenestration, being thrown out of the window. “She threw the ball right at the batter’s head.” The ball is the direct object and the batter’s head is the indirect object. In the sentence “He and I talked about it” there is no place for a direct object. Both pronouns must be in the subject case since both are the subject of the verb.

Why does it matter? Well, why do any rules matter? Try driving without rules and get back to me. Is grammar utterly arbitrary? No. To be sure, there are conventions (e.g., putting the other person first in the sentence as a matter of politeness) but some grammar rules are rooted in and reflect the nature of things. There is an necessary difference between object and subject. The different cases reflect this reality.

The old commercial said, “people judge you by the words you use. It is true. Further, using poor grammar not only reflects poorly on the speaker or writer but it also confuses the listener or the reader. “Everyone understands what I mean” is no defense because it is not true. Everyone does not necessarily understand what you mean when you do not follow basic rules of communication, of which basic grammar is one. If you are speaking or writing, presumably it is because you want to communicate. Why would one wish to communicate poorly?

Finally, there is an ethical issue. Good grammar is a way of loving your neighbor. Writing and speaking well puts your neighbor’s interest above your own. Deliberately poor grammar is a sign of immaturity. It tells others that they and their time are not worth your effort. That is an ungracious and immature attitude and it does not aid communication.

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  1. How polite was Caleb in Joshua 14:6, KJV and original Hebrew? Or was he speaking like that because at the very start only he had been firm, while Joshua wavering, only coming over to Caleb’s side the following morning?
    And what is “What have I to do with thee?” in the original languages?
    Maybe the nominative pronouns in American sports-speak ARE Me, You, Him, We, You, Them?

    • Fred,

      Of course, Joshua 14:6 is in Hebrew, which has its own politeness conventions. See my colleague Bryan Estelle’s work on this. The text says, (‏עַ֧ל אֹדוֹתַ֛י וְעַ֥ל אֹדוֹתֶ֖יךָ) which = “about you and about me.”

      I remember the great Red Barber and Vin Scully just retired and Keith Jackson. None of them would have said, “me and him.”

  2. “Everyone does not necessarily understand what you mean…”

    You stumbled into one of my pet peeves here. There is a logical difference between “Everyone doesn’t understand what you mean” and “Not everyone understands what you mean”, although your ‘necessarily’ mitigates in this case. Maybe you could add this to the stack for future Grammar Guerilla posts?

    • I’m with you on this one – drives me bananas. This formulation is most famously immortalized in the saying “all that glitters is not gold”. If that’s the case, I’d like to buy your wife’s glittery jewelry for cheap, because surely it is not gold. 🙂

  3. Dr. Clark, I stopped at sports radio. I occasionally listen to sports radio, and most of the ‘personalities’ could use some more English classes. I’m shocked, however, when I listen to some sports podcasts, where the speakers I listen to are a cut above, and even some of them use dreadful terms like, “impactful.”

    Love the Heidelblog and Heidelcast, keep it up Dr. RSC!

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