Friday, April 13, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Don't Get Personal
With Me, Part Two

personal pronouns after except. Just like but, except in the sense of “with the exclusion of” or “other than” is generally viewed as a preposition, not a conjunction. Therefore, a personal pronoun that follows except should be in the objective case: No one except me knew it. Every member of the original cast was signed except her.

personal pronouns after than. Grammarians have insisted since the 18th century that than should be regarded as a conjunction in all its uses. By this thinking, a sentence such as Bill is taller than Tom is really a truncated version of the sentence Bill is taller than Tom is. Accordingly, when a pronoun follows than in sentences like this, it should be in the nominative case since it is the subject of the verb that is “understood.” Thus the rule requires Bill is taller than he (not him). But when applied to sentences in which the pronoun following than is the object of an understood verb, the rule requires that the pronoun be in the objective case. Thus you must say The news surprised Pat more than me, since this sentence is considered a truncated version of The news surprised Pat more than it surprised me. The rule is logical and neat, and no harm can come from following it in formal writing, but people often don’t follow it, especially when speaking. In fact, than has been used as a preposition since the 1500s in sentences like John is taller than me. In these cases the pronoun is in the objective case where the rule would require the nominative. This construction appears in the writing of some of our most respected writers, among them Shakespeare, Johnson, Swift, Scott, and Faulkner. So if you choose to ignore the grammarian’s rule, you are in good company. If you want even more justification, remember that than is clearly treated as a preposition in the than whom construction, as in a poet than whom (not than who) no one has a dearer place in the hearts of his countrymen. Still, if you find you have written a sentence such as Mary is taller than him, don’t be surprised if some of your readers object.

between you and I. “All debts are cleared between you and I,” writes Antonio to Bassanio in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Did Shakespeare commit a blunder, writing I where the objective form me is required?

When pronouns joined by a conjunction occur as the object of a preposition such as between, according to, or like, many people use the nominative form where the traditional grammatical rule would require the objective. They say between you and I rather than between you and me, and so forth.

Shakespeare can hardly have violated a rule of formal English grammar, since he and his contemporaries studied Latin grammar, not English. In fact, the rule outlawing between you and I did not get written until the 1860s. It has since become part of standard schoolroom grammar. Writing between you and I is now widely regarded as a sign of ignorance, even though the phrase occurs quite often in speech. So don’t feel bad if you catch yourself saying it. Just remember: if you want to avoid trouble, stick to between you and me in formal speech and writing.

[to be continued]

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