Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

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Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

Fun – I think I just gave myself a little lesson both about language change and about sociolinguistics and registers. Now I’m just waiting to see whether in my baseball register, I’ll start using the simple-present counterfactuals that I have found so interesting in baseball interviews (“He catches that ball, we’re into extra innings.” They’ll never say “If he had caught that ball, we would have been into extra innings” – though they might say “If he would of caught that ball, we would have been into extra innings.” I think the simple-present one is new since my brother’s day, but I’m not a dialectologist, that’s only my subjective impression.)

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47 Comments »

  1. FM said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 5:08 am

    Most of the time, French speakers will "build" the subject of their sentence first, as an apposition, and then use the clitic pronoun to refer back to it in proper subject position. This is particularly the case with coordinated noun phrases, but not only, hence:

    - Moi, je suis… (Me, I am…), Nous, on est… (Us, we are…)
    - Moi et mes potes, nous sommes / on est… (Me and my buddies, we are…)

    The first case is often frowned upon by parents and teachers alike (mainly for attracting too much attention to oneself), but in French, it is the use of such coordinated noun phrases directly in subject position which sounds overformal, and incompatible with potes / buddies:

    - Moi et mes amis / mes amis et moi sommes… (My friends and I are…)

    If I remember correctly, the French linguist Antoine Culioli put it down to a need for French speakers to establish what he called "repérages successifs" (successive location operations), starting from what is already known or accessible to the hearer, as if to make sure they understand the reference of the subject before starting the sentence per se, as in:

    - Moi, mon frère, sa femme, elle travaille à la poste. (Me, my brother, his wife, she works at the post office.)

    Though they might sound rather alien to English speakers, and look alien even to French speakers when seen in writing, those structures abound in the language spoken everyday by ordinary people.

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    The earliest "baseball conditional" that I know of is from Elmore Leonard's Mr. Majestyk (1974):

    "Listen," Renda said, "we get to a phone we're out of the country before morning."

    (Unlike Barbara's examples, this one is just irrealis, not counterfactual, but I think that people who use the construction for potential relationships also use it for counterfactual ones, and vice versa. I should also note that some examples might be cases of prosiopesis, or at least might start out that way.)

    I'm sure that this construction is much older than 1974, but I can't think of a way to (automatically) search for examples, or even to locate possible discussion in the scholarly literature, except to ask LL's diverse and well-informed readers.

    Also, I need to add that the performance of the Phillies this season leaves me with little sympathy for Orioles and Red Sox fans…

  3. djbcjk said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:29 am

    The baseball conditional is as old as the hills. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Feed a cold and starve a fever. Protasis and apodosis.

    [(myl) The case of conjoined imperative forms with generic conditional interpretation is relevant, but I think it's different, among other things because (at least in a few often-quoted examples like "Spare the rod and spoil the child") it seems to be entirely consistent with formal style. Whereas irrealis conditional interpretation given to juxtaposed clauses with intact subjects ("you break it, you buy it") are distinctly non-standard, and preterite examples with counterfactual interpretation even more so ("He just did a little damage control in that situation, we're OK").

    The pattern "No X, no Y" is also common in a conditional interpretation, though again my intuition is that it's generally informal in tone.

    As for "Feed a cold and starve a fever", its interpretation is not conditional at all.]

  4. Lora said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:37 am

    So is it OK in baseball to use nominative thee?

  5. djbcjk said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:41 am

    And by the way, thanks Barbara for drawing attention to the French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ in the first matter you discussed. It always seemed to me we have English disjunctive pronouns which are used in exactly the same way. Only ours don't take a special form but are the same form as the accusative. If only they took a different form, it would stop prescriptivists having conniptions. Or — they take a different form, prescriptivists would stop having conniptions.

  6. Faldone said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    "… would of caught … would have been …"?

    I could see "If he'd caught that ball, we'd be in extra innings." Of course it's going to sound stilted if you pronounce the whole would.

  7. mike said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    Long ago I heard/read someone say (Burchfield? grad school prof?) that it might be helpful to think of pronouns in English as predictably nominative only if a) the subject is singular and b) immediately precedes the verb. Otherwise, things got fuzzy fast. It was an interesting way to approach the issue. Of course, that would not account for nominative popping up as OPs ("between he and I").

  8. Eric P Smith said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:06 am

    FM mentions

    “repérages successifs” (successive location operations), starting from what is already known or accessible to the hearer.

    We do that in Scotland with the verb ‘see’. “See Alex Ferguson, see his brother Martin, him and me were pals at school.”

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:19 am

    Faldone: In New Mexico, I hear "If he would have" (or "would of") far more often than "if he had" or "if he'd".

    COCA results from the spoken corpus:

    If I had [verbed]: 422
    If I'd [verbed]: 129
    Total: 551

    If I would have [verbed]: 111
    If I would've [verbed]: 7
    If I'd have [verbed]: 38
    If I'd of [verbed] + If I would of [verbed]: 0
    Total:156

    Most of COCA's spoken corpus is transcripts of TV and radio non-sports news and interview shows, that is, well-educated people on their best syntactic behavior are over-represented (and apparently transcribers don't render /əv/ as "of" when it's a verb). I think "if I would have" is not unusual in American English as a whole.

  10. languagehat said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:27 am

    I can't think of a way to (automatically) search for examples

    Yes, I thought I was pretty good at refining searches to get what I want, but I'm hitting a brick wall here. I'd love to see someone come up with early examples, because like Mark, I'm sure it's much older than 1974. (Also like Mark, I have little sympathy for the travails of Oriole and Red Sox fans; in fact, as a Mets fan, I have even less. Today's Times headline: "Niese Stays Consistent,/ Just Not in the Way/ The Mets Had Hoped." Pirates 11, Mets 2. Fourth place, .424 winning percentage. Thank God for Miami.)

  11. D Sky Onosson said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    This post made me immediately think of the song "Us and Them" by Pink Floyd, from Dark Side of the Moon, recorded 40 years ago.

  12. Ellen K. said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Long ago I heard/read someone say (Burchfield? grad school prof?) that it might be helpful to think of pronouns in English as predictably nominative only if a) the subject is singular and b) immediately precedes the verb. Otherwise, things got fuzzy fast. It was an interesting way to approach the issue. Of course, that would not account for nominative popping up as OPs ("between he and I").

    I'm puzzled by (a). I can't see that "us" or "them" would ever be used directly in front of a verb, and I think we can count "you" as a nominative pronoun in contemporary English (and going back quite a while).

  13. peter said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    @FM (Comment #1):

    Perhaps the grammar of French is topic-comment, not subject-verb-object?

  14. CherylT said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    @Ellen K. I think this is what is described:
    Us fans are fed up.
    We are fed up.
    We fans are fed up
    seems rather formal.

  15. E W Gilman said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    "Us and our Red Sox buddies", "between he and Victorino". "with he and Joe"are all compound units. Wasn't it Chomsky someplace who observed that such units are free from the government of verbs and prepositions?

  16. Rodger C said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:11 am

    “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”

    Nothing to do with pronouns, but when I was that age I thought "stub" (one's toe, etc.) was pronounced "stump." I'd never heard "stub" in speech and never seen "stump" as a verb in writing.

  17. Ellen K. said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    Cheryl T, your examples are covered under (b), as the pronouns are not directly in front of the verbs.

  18. Mark Liberman said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    For some discussion of order, case, and formality in conjoined pronouns, see "Patterns of prestigious deviance", 10/3/2011.

  19. Eric P Smith said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:33 am

    Feed a cold and starve a fever

    Yes, not conditional at all. But you also hear "Starve a cold, and feed a fever" which is conditional: If you starve a cold, you risk feeding a fever. Quite dangerous, I am told, if interpreted as two imperatives!

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    Ellen K.: COCA has very few examples of "us" or "them" directly in front of a verb. I can't resist quoting this one from an unidentified woman on Geraldo that also seems to contain a "baseball conditional". (Steven apparently has trouble with money that he can't explain very well.) "Steven, I have a son on drugs, and he can't keep no money. You may not know he's on drugs, if you don't know him. But I know him, OK? So he's using his money for drugs. And I'm afraid Mama and them dig a little deeper, they'll find out that's what's happening with your money."

    You can find plenty of relevant Google hits on "me and them are", though you also find plenty of irrelevant ones. Mencken apparently cited "Me and them are friends" in The American Language.

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    I think it's somewhat of an overstatement to say "they’ll never say" a normal counterfactual conditional. A quick google search of my favorote baseball site turns up a few examples, such as "If he had got a ground ball to first, [Verlander] would be laughing." Or is it just announcer talk you mean here?

    @djbcjk: I don't think "spare the rod and spoil the child" is exactly the same thing, though I couldn't characterize the precise difference. I think there's a causal/chronological use of "and" in play there, and in "wash and dry the dishes" (*"dry and wash the dishes") or "buy ten and save!" (examples originally from John Lawler, long ago, I think).

    @myl: I remember a racially dodgy joke from my childhood (1960s) that I won't repeat, but the punchline was (Mexican accent) "you sheet on my bed, I keel!"

  22. GeorgeW said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    Could this be part of some larger demise-of-nominative-pronoun movement in informal speech? When in doubt, use accusative.

    "That is me in the picture."
    "Who's at door? "Me" (is at the door).

  23. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    I always understood an unstated "as for" when the pronoun isn't nominative.

    "You wanna stop for lunch?"
    "[As for] Me, I'm hungry."

    [Quant à] in French, I guess. I can't think of a parallel in Germanic.

  24. CherylT said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    Ellen, I think we might be interpreting the formulation differently. I agree that it would be surprising to hear Them + verb , but it would not be very surprising to hear Me and him + verb or Us + group + verb .

  25. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

    Is You pays your money, you takes your choice relevant? It was used already in the mid-19th century.

  26. languagehat said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 2:18 pm

    Yes, not conditional at all. But you also hear "Starve a cold, and feed a fever" which is conditional: If you starve a cold, you risk feeding a fever.

    My understanding is quite the reverse: the traditional proverb is in fact conditional, and means "If you feed a cold, you risk having to starve a fever." This seems to me borne out by experience; does anyone really think eating a lot is a good idea if you have a cold? In any event, the interpretation of the saying is controversial, and it's a mistake to say "not conditional at all" as if that were established fact.

  27. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    @ Dan Lufkin

    I don't think you need to supply unstated words though. The more parsimonious explanation is just that the plain form of the pronoun is the default in English, and the nominative is mainly used as the whole subject of a finite verb.

    That way you explain your stranding example, plus you get isolation, co-ordination, it-clefts, existential constructions, modification by adjectives ("silly me!") and a few others all for free. And there's good parallelism with disjunctives as in French.

  28. Barbara Partee said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 6:20 am

    @ Faldone — sorry. ""… would of caught … would have been …"?" — that was my mistake, I meant "would of … would of".

    @Pflumbaum – oh good, you saved me a longer reply. The pronoun stays nominative when it's the "whole subject of" the verb, nicely put — that's clearer than "immediately precedes", because of the examples with conjoined subjects that several people brought up. Klima in classes in 1962, and maybe in print, suggested that neither conjunct in a conjoined subject counts as "immediately preceding" the verb, but there wasn't any good way to formalize that then. (He proposed that what stood between such subjects and the verb was an extra "plural" morpheme, since anyway we needed a way to say that the conjunction of two singulars is a plural. But that left problems with disjunctions.)

  29. Luis said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 9:13 am

    I propose changing the label "baseball to counterfactuals" to "team sports counterfactuals", given that the same phenomenon (past counterfactuality without past tense marking) is also relatively common among soccer commentators in Spain. Witness:

    (1) [after a shot goes widely off goal]
    Con esa potencia, si va dentro el portero no la para.
    with such force if it goes on-goal the goalie not it stops

    Interestingly, the consequent can also be in the imperfect, with no apparent truth-conditional difference (at least for me, after thinking about it for about 30 seconds).

    (2) [after a shot goes widely off goal]
    Con esa potencia, si va dentro el portero no la paraba.
    with such force if it goes on-goal the goalie not it stopped

    More generally, if languages other than Spanish and English allow this type of past counterfactuals, something interesting can be said about the morphology-semantics interface of counterfactuals. Hopefully there's a bright grad student out there searching for a QP topic.

  30. KevinM said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 9:14 am

    Us chickens are here, but nobody else is.

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    @ Barbara –

    I'd like to take the credit, but I took whole subject of a finite verb from CGEL, where there's a full list of the relevant constructions where the plain form is preferred in subject or subject-like position.

  32. Alex Boulton said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    Feed a cold, starve a fever.
    I find this discussion odd, as to me it's two entirely different things (and the first couple of websites I looked at tend to support this).

    You should eat a lot when you have a cold.
    You should eat very little when you have a fever.

  33. D Sky Onosson said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    Alex Boulton, that's exactly how I've always interpreted it, too.

  34. RP said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

    Is there any reason to write "would of" rather than "would've"? Does the first one sound any different?

  35. RP said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    @FM, I always notice a lot of similar constructions – in English – when watching the TV show "Being Erica". I haven't studied whether they really do occur more often in that show than in other shows or in ordinary speech around me, but that's when I've mostly noticed them. For instance at http://www.tv.com/shows/being-erica/moving-on-up-1360882/trivia/ the lines quoted include "Ethan, he has been my best friend for over a decade" (which is a sentence about Ethan, not addressed to him); "Ethan, he, um … he gave that to me the night of the launch". It could be coincidence, but it's a Canadian show.

    Some scholars believe colloquial French and formal French are best treated as two distinct grammars – diglossia. I read an interesting article this recently but I can't find it now. I think this is an area where the two varieties diverge.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 2:04 pm

    Is a finite verb a verb that's not an (equivalent of an) infinitive?

  37. Barbara Partee said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

    @RP: I had always thought that there was no difference between 've and 'of', and that 'of' was just a spelling mistake, until my oldest son at some point in grade school said "If I hadn't of been there, …", and I realized that couldn't come from *hadn't have. You could still write it 've, I suppose, but it's NOT a contracted 'have'!

  38. Barbara Partee said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    @Pfumblaum, oh, thanks!! My Amherst copy of CGEL is back in Amherst, and my Moscow copy is on permanent loan to the Linguistics Department reading room at one of my two universities here. When I'm in Amherst I often find myself running to it! Hadn't seen that bit yet.

  39. Barbara Partee said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

    @Ellen K — yes, finite contrasts with infinitive, but more specifically it's a verb with present or past tense morphology. Not infinitive, not bare stem, not -ing form, not an -en form (have I left anything out?).

  40. D Sky Onosson said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    Barbara Partee, re: "If I hadn't of been there" I've always assumed that *was* a contracted "have", and I have written it as "hadn't've" in the past. Now you've got me re-thinking it!

  41. Colin Fine said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

    Long ago I heard/read someone say (Burchfield? grad school prof?) that it might be helpful to think of pronouns in English as predictably nominative only if a) the subject is singular and b) immediately precedes the verb. Otherwise, things got fuzzy fast. It was an interesting way to approach the issue. Of course, that would not account for nominative popping up as OPs ("between he and I").

    Joseph Emonds, in Grammatically Deviant Prestige Constructions (1986) suggests as a description of the rule in "NU" ("Normal Usage", as opposed to "Prestige Usage"):

    (10) The subject pronouns I, we, he, she, and they are used as a noun phrase (NP) if and only if the phrase is an immediate constituent of a sentence (S) which contains an inflected verbal element.

    He says this is derived from a paper by Klima, but I haven't read that one.

  42. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 9:37 pm

    @ Barbara -

    CGEL also has a brief mention of the 'double perfect' construction 'had(n't) have', noting, if I remember right, how odd it is for 'had' to license the plain form of the verb.. I don't think it's only used with negative polarity – at least in BrE 'Had I have been there…' and 'If I HAD have been…" seem to be possible.

    Re CGEL's examples of constructions where nom. pronouns are excluded, for what it's worth I summarised them low down in the comments on this LL thread:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3469

  43. Ellen K. said,

    May 14, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

    Pflaumbaum, do you mean those with a fully pronounced "have" (/hæv/) or a reduced pronounciation? I always read "have" as fully pronounced. And, with that, for me (American) those examples seem really badly wrong, and the last one is even hard to say. But if I imagine a reduced pronunciation they sound, well, much more believable as something someone might say.

  44. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 15, 2013 @ 4:17 am

    Yes I imagine it would almost always be reduced to /həv/ or /əv/, and as noted above may well be felt as "of" by some speakers in the same way as it is after modals.

    'Hadn't of been' gets about 9 million google hits.

    And when the 'had' is reduced as well (e.g. 'I'd've') it can sometimes be unclear if the construction is "double perfect" or modal 'would'.

  45. Rod Johnson said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    I'm curious just how one would characterize the "baseball conditional" syntactically. I just encountered this sentence, and it didn't seem odd at all: Westbrook is amazing, and I think the Thunder probably win that series with him healthy. (NB: Westbrook was not healthy, and the Thunder did not win.)

    Note there's no X does A, Y does B structure here (though there is a with him healthy, which you could analyze as a small clause). I want to say that there's a adjoined clausal expression that denotes a counterfactual event, and it's having scope over the present tense main clause is what makes this a conditional. Am I right in thinking that both components must be present, or at least nonpast? There seems to be a fairly intricate interplay between the syntax and semantics of clausal adjuncts here.

  46. Steve Edwards said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 9:30 am

    This raises (not begs) the question for me of why there seems to be such a dramatic rise in the construction, "Me and [subject pronoun/proper noun] + verb." As one commenter noted, "I agree that it would be surprising to hear Them + verb , but it would not be very surprising to hear Me and him + verb or Us + group + verb." Why is that? Is it because, as some commentators have suggested, that native speakers are increasingly self-oriented? I believe that this construction was previously typical to young children who could sense that "Me and [subject pronoun/proper noun] + verb" would be incorrect but who instinctively wanted to place themselves in the primary position. On the other hand, the construction is considered grammatical in other languages. Could there be construction creep from other languages?

  47. Mark Stephenson said,

    January 25, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

    'Er as was 'as gone from we.
    Us as is 'll go ter she.

    Black Country epitaph

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