Lexicon Valley: Why we keep saying “between you and I.”

Why We Insist on Saying “Between You and I”

Why We Insist on Saying “Between You and I”

A show about the mysteries of English.
Feb. 21 2012 1:21 PM

Between You and I

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Mike Vuolo Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

Do you flinch when someone says “between you and I”? Textbook English tells us it’s ungrammatical, and yet it’s arguably more common than the officially sanctioned “between you and me.” Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare—all were guilty of using “I” when the sentence cried out for “me.” Or maybe they weren’t so guilty after all. Bob Garfield and I discuss the oft-uttered, much-maligned “between you and I.”

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Below is a transcript of this episode:

BOB: All right, my own anecdotal observation tells me that the phrase "between you and I" is used at least as often, probably far more often, than the phrase "between you and me," even though, am I wrong, "between you and me" is the only right way of phrasing it.

MIKE: Well, the smart-ass in me might say, Oh, how linguistically quaint of you to suggest that a popular way of phrasing something is grammatically wrong. In other words, if "between you and I" is, as you're suggesting, actually used far more often, then shouldn't correctness be determined by what people, you know, actually use?


BOB: So, if "between you and I" isn't wrong, isn't it at least sloppy, unnecessary, a big, fat piece of evidence that the speaker is really not comfortable linguistically with him or herself?

MIKE: OK, so the non-smart-ass in me would say, you're right. There is a well-defined rule, according to which "between you and I" is wrong. On the other hand, there is also a relatively modern theory, should you subscribe to it, which may undermine that rule, and we'll get to that in a few minutes. But I wanna begin today in the spring of 1988, when a guy named Joseph Nohavicka was a night student at Mercy College in the Bronx, where he lived. During the day, Nohavicka drove a truck around New York delivering Wise potato chips and each afternoon he would pull over to the side of the street to eat his lunch and read the New York Times. One day in 1988, in a little feature on the editorial page, the Times noted that many readers had written in about a Dunkin' Donuts commercial that mixed up lie and lay, a very common mistake. And this little feature ended with a kind of cheeky call to action. It said, "Alert listeners, keep it up! And may your next campaign be aimed at defeating that soap-opera staple, 'Between you and I.' " Nohavicka, eating his lunch on the side of the road, got a little ticked off by this and thought, I'm gonna write back.

NOHAVICKA: So I did. I was an English major, so I wanted to show off, as much as I could, my writing skills. I had my trusty thesaurus on my side. I picked every pedantic word I could find and I put this letter together to them.

MIKE: That's Joseph Nohavicka. He still lives in the Bronx. And I'd like you, Bob, to read the letter to the editor that he wrote back in 1988, because I thought that if anyone could capture the pedantic, scolding, self-righteous tone [laughing] …


BOB: Uh-huh.

MIKE: Well, please, go ahead.

BOB: Yeah, once again, Mike, I'm moved by the respect that you evince for me. It just really ... [sigh]. All right, here's what Nohavicka wrote to the Times: "To the editor. Regrettably, you have attacked a much-picked-on victim ... 'between you and I.' The common idiom is quite proper and predates modern soap operas by a few hundred years. Take, for instance, William Shakespeare. 'All debts are clear'd between you and I' [from The Merchant of Venice] Perhaps the apposition of 'you' and 'I' seems a bit pretentious at times; nevertheless, it is grammatically precise. Furthermore, suggesting eradication of words or phrases not deemed felicitous by a writer claiming to be a protector of 'proper' English is in reality a contradiction. It is the soap-opera writer who is the true protector of the language; he opts to emulate Shakespearean eloquence, and between you and I, it is Shakespeare I would opt to emulate."

MIKE: See, I knew it. You really delivered that well.


BOB: Yeah, I nailed it. It's my native pretentiousness.

MIKE: I just knew you had it in you. Now, Nohavicka's letter is published. He's very excited. A week later, he's sitting once again in his delivery truck ...

NOHAVICKA: And I took out my copy of the New York Times and I opened it up right away to the op-ed and to the editorial page and I looked at Russell Baker's column and I couldn't believe what I saw ... I had to look at it a couple ... I put the paper down, I got up and I walked like around and I went back to the newspaper and I saw my name right at the top of the page. I couldn't believe it, you know, and it starts out with "Joseph Nohavicka, comma."

MIKE to NOHAVICKA: Here you are a student, a truck driver in your spare time and you're getting into a grammatical debate with Russell Baker.


NOHAVICKA: [laughing] That's right. The only thing I needed against me at that time, in addition to that, would maybe have been William Safire. I may have quit school [laughing].

MIKE: First of all, I just wanna observe that it's a little bit cruel of the New York Times, I think, to publish Nohavicka's letter and then unleash the great, esteemed Russell Baker to rebut him. If you read Baker's column it's very witty and humorous, as he always was, and he pointed out that "Shakespeare was wrong." In fact, his column was titled "A Slip of the Quill," and he says that the established rules of grammar are very clear on this. "Between" is a preposition. The object of the preposition must be in the "objective," or what's sometimes called the "accusative," case. And to quote directly from Russell Baker, "the accusative form of the first-person-singular pronoun is “me." Therefore, the correct phrase is “between you and me.”

BOB: Yeah, that's what I was saying at the beginning, but you got all "Oh, no, the language is malleable" on me.

MIKE: I'm not sure I took that tone but, yeah, I did imply that and we're getting there. But first let me quote Russell Baker one more time. He said that "Shakespeare simply nodded off on this one."

BOB: Nodded off Mike? Or just, you know, careless as people are today with basic rules of grammar?

MIKE: OK, so let's assume for the moment that "between you and I" is incontrovertibly wrong and that Shakespeare was careless. But are people more careless now than ever before? I mean, many people who object to "between you and I" talk about it as a recent phenomenon. "Between you and I" was never nearly as common, they say, as it is now, Shakespeare notwithstanding. The language is going to hell. And, anecdotally, I asked my father-in-law, who tends to be very careful and precise with his grammar, when he thought "between you and I" became widespread in the language and he said about 10 or 15 years ago.

BOB: Are you insane? You've been married for like five minutes. You're already going after your father-in-law? That is not going to be an availing strategy long-term.

MIKE: I didn't name him by name. He could be any father-in-law. So, there's this term in linguistics called "recency illusion," and it described the mistaken perception some have that a particular usage is more recent than it is. So, my father-in-law thinks that "between you and I" dates back to the 1990s. The New York Times took note of it in the 1980s. In the 1970s, the critic John Simon published a column in Esquire in which he called "between you and I" an "abomination" and he said, "Not so long ago, any halfway self-respecting high-school student would sooner have bitten off and swallowed the tip of this pencil than have committed that error."

BOB: Now John Simon was in the fulmination business. He was always in high dudgeon about something or other, but doesn't he also make clear here that he is fallen prey to the "recency illusion"?

MIKE: Yeah, that quote suggests he, too, thought it was recent and my suspicion was that you could keep going back in time finding people who claim that it's only just now a recent phenomenon. So, I asked Patricia O'Connor, she's the author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English.

BOB: [laughing] That is the most fantastic title, and by the way gets right to the point of what we're discussing. If she didn't exist, you would've had to invent her.

MIKE: Maybe I did. I asked O'Connor, when did "between you and I" become prevalent in the language?

O’CONNOR: People have been using "between you and I" since early Middle English and people have been calling attention to it since the middle of the 18th century. The earliest complaint I found about it was mentioned in a commentary on English that was published in 1767. The author, Archibald Campbell, says that in an earlier edition of his book he had used the phrase "between you and I" and was criticized by reviewers for that. And what he says in response is: "In the first edition of this work, I had used the phrase "between you and I," which, though it must be confessed to be ungrammatical, is yet almost universally used in familiar conversation." So it's not new.

MIKE: Almost universally used. And this is back in the 1700s. O'Connor says that Samuel Pepys used it, Daniel Defoe, Mark Twain. My favorite example of hers was from Dave Garroway, who was the original host of the Today show.

O’CONNOR: And when the show debuted 60 years ago, in January of 1952, Garroway said it was, "The very first good morning of what I hope and suspect will be a great many good mornings between you and I."

BOB: Uh, funnily enough, his chimpanzee, his sidekick on the show, J. Fred Muggs, never got that wrong.

MIKE: Oh yeah, that guy was totally whip-smart.

BOB: [laughing] He certainly was. OK, so it's not new, but it still sounds so off, you know, so obviously ungrammatical.

MIKE: Well you're right. I mean, there's no ambiguity regarding the rule, but then why are we so prone to breaking the rule? And here's where some theories come into play. The most popular theory is called "hypercorrection," and it works something like this. Many of us grew up using "me" incorrectly, saying things like "Bob and me are hosting this podcast." It should be "Bob and I" because here "I" is part of the subject, not an object. We had people correcting us all the time, so much, so the theory goes, that we now hypercorrect, using "I" too much, even when it’s wrong.

BOB: Yeah, that's precisely what I'd always assumed. It completely conforms to my understanding of why people do that.

MIKE: But O'Connor says there's a problem with the hypercorrection theory in this case.

O’CONNOR: Since "between you and I" has been common since Middle English, before there were any prescribed rules of grammar, perhaps there's something more important than hypercorrection going on here, something that gets to the very structure of the language. And this is where Noam Chomsky and modern linguists come in. They have a very persuasive theory that holds that in a construction like "between you and I," the entire phrase "you and I" is the object of the preposition and that for the individual elements within it the case becomes arbitrary.

MIKE to O’CONNOR: What do you think would happen if in sixth grade your teacher corrected you and said, “You know, it's ‘between you and me’ not ‘I,’ ” and you said, “Well, you haven't read Chomsky.”

O’CONNOR: [laughing] I would think that would be a very, um, precocious elementary school student who made that argument.

MIKE to O’CONNOR: Do you think it would hold any sway with the teacher?

O’CONNOR: [laughing] I don't know, I don't know. You'd probably have to get an "E" for effort.

BOB: All right Mike, now, if I understand what O'Connor's saying, it's that if there are multiple pronouns after a preposition, they kind of act together and the case is just entirely up for grabs?

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. Think of it with variables. Between X and Y. Conceptually, "X and Y," taken as a whole, is the object of the preposition. The variable themselves can be whatever they wanna be. They can even be reflexive—"between you and myself."

BOB: Maybe I'm a snob, but when I hear that usage I internally roll my eyes much as I would roll my eyes if I were in someone's apartment and saw on the bookshelf a bunch of James Patterson novels and three volumes of Deepak Chopra. You know, I become flushed with a sense of superiority [laughing]. Uh, am I wrong?

MIKE: Well, I actually think you're getting at the problem that literate people have, or people who aspire to be literate, in their approach to the language. Let's take this example. I think we have several choices here. One, you can observe the traditional grammatical rule and always say, "between you and me," because you don't wanna seem ignorant to people who know and care about that rule. Patricia O'Connor told me that that's what she does. Two, you can sort of place yourself conspicuously in the theoretical avant-garde and always say, "between you and I," and when someone corrects you, invoke Chomsky. But, you know, that has its own consequences. You have to really wanna be that guy. Or three, you can not worry about it and tell yourself that if occasional fallibility is OK for Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Jessica Simpson, who has a song called "Between You and I," then it's OK for you.

BOB: Wow, Jessica Simpson sings a dubious usage? That rocks my world.

MIKE: And, you know, there is a fourth option, one that I personally find entirely unacceptable. Remember John Simon, the critic who wrote the column in Esquire, he advocates, of course, using "between you and me" and militantly proselytizing. I'm gonna ask you to read this passage, once again affecting your most persnickety tone.

BOB: All right Mike, I will do that but with this disclaimer. John Simon, when he was writing, was not just persnickety, he was a prick. And he said aloud what I merely think quietly and somewhat guiltily to myself. But anyway, here's what he had to say: "What then are we to do about it? Simple. We fight. Whenever, wherever we hear someone say "between you and I," and whoever the offender may be, we go into action. To strangers in the street we may have to be polite. To superiors we may even have to be somewhat humble, but correct them we must. To all others we may be as sharp, forceful, tonitruous as the circumstances permit or demand. Let family, friends, and neighbors hear us correct them loudly and clearly. Let "between you and me" resound across the land, otherwise there will soon be no more communication between you and me."

MIKE: I'm pretty sure I don't even know what tonitruous means, but, wow, you really do that well.

BOB: OK, once again I feel like I've been insulted.

[Jessica Simpson's "Between You and I":
Between you and I
And the starlight of the sky
Nothin' and no one would ever know ...]

MIKE: As always, Bob, I have a coda. We started this conversation with you suggesting that "between you and I," although wrong, was perhaps far more common than "between you and me." And in 2003 a couple of sociolinguists, Phillipp Angermeyer and John Singler, looked at what people actually use. If we think of it again in terms of variables—"between X and Y"—they identified three competing permutations here: "between you and I" and "between you and me," and also "between me and you," putting the "me" first.

BOB: And of course "between I and you."

MIKE: Yeah, but as they point out, virtually nobody says that. It just sounds ridiculous.

BOB: Says yourself.

MIKE: Exactly. So, "between you and me" they call the "standard" usage, "between you and I" the "polite" usage and "between me and you" the "vernacular." And they found that each of these three constructions is favored by a particular demographic. Generally speaking, children and adults with limited formal education, no more than high school say, disproportionately use the vernacular "me and you." The oldest people they studied and those with the most education, Ph.D.s, tended to use the standard "you and me" and those, as they put it, "intermediate in age and level of education favor the polite,"—"between you and I."

BOB: That actually scans with my experience. It makes a fair amount of sense.

MIKE: Yeah, it does make sense. So, let's get back to the original question. Which form is winning? They say in the paper that among the youth and the less educated, "between me and you" is consistent over time and that doesn't appear to be changing. For the rest of us, there's much more of a push-and-pull between the "standard" and the "polite" forms, each with its own advantage. What "between you and me" has in its favor is this sort of ongoing backlash against "between you and I."

BOB: You mean because of jerks like me who turn up our nose or just flinch whenever we hear it?

MIKE: There's you. There was John Simon. There was Kingsley Amis. There's a whole kind of cottage industry of "between you and I" detraction. What "between you and I" has in its favor, though, is that it's often used by celebrities and politicians and socialites, people that other people tend to emulate. So, here's their concluding sentence: "No clear winner seems to be emerging. Rather, as they have apparently done for more than 400 years, the vernacular, the polite and the standard seem to be continuing in a dynamic state of stable ternary variation."

BOB: Ternary?

MIKE: You know, like, involving three things.

BOB: Ah! Of course.

MIKE: Now, I did my own very unscientific Googling of "between you and me" and "between you and I." "Between you and me" gets about four-and-a-half million hits and "between you and I," you were totally right Bob, 80 million hits.

BOB: I'm not sure how unscientific it is. Rigorous perhaps not, but that is a pretty enormous sample size.

MIKE: It is, and it's a pretty big disparity. By the way, "between me and you," the "vernacular," gets about a million-and-a-half hits and, you know, there's nothing grammatically incorrect about the "vernacular." It's only a custom of politeness really that says we place ourselves last in a list. In fact, Patricia O'Connor told me that she would rather be technically grammatically correct and say "between me and you" than polite and say "between you and I."

BOB: Oh I am, I am totally with her on that. You know, I've always thought that placing the me as the last in the list was a sort of false humility of the sort people affect when they're, you know, bragging. "I was fortunate enough to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor." Yeah, yeah, you were fortunate enough. You're bragging about having the Congressional Medal of Honor. Just, you know, gimme a break.

[Ja Rule's "Between Me and You”:
Every little thing that we do
Should be between me and you
The freaky things that we do
Let's keep between me and you ...]