When peeves collide

« previous post | next post »

… the result is a grammatical bar brawl.  An excellent example is on display over at Ask MetaFilter, where someone innocently asked

So which sentence is proper English grammar: "If you eat like Bob and me, you will be healthy." or "If you eat like Bob and I, you will be healthy."

KA-POW: "it's the second one…" WHAAM: "No, it's the first…" BIFF: "The verb 'do' is implied…" DOINK: "'like' … is indisputably a preposition in this case. It can't even function as a conjunction."

And so on. There's some sensible and well-informed advice mixed in with the mud and the blood and the beer, including a link to my discussion of a similar question a few weeks ago ("Write like me?", 7/24/2009). But overall, the chaos of contradictory confidence is likely to reinforce the culture's general state of nervous cluelessness about grammar.

In this case, an ample supply of the relevant clues can be found in two entries in MWDEU. The first is the entry for between you and I (p. 181-182):

And the second is the entry like, as, as if (p. 600-603):

Unfortunately, the answer suggested by the MetaFilter free-for-all still stands — no matter what you do with this question, some peevologist is likely to take a poke at you. But maybe this background will help you get out of the place in one piece.


  1. John Lawler said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    It's amazing how the concept of 'grammar' exists for so many people solely as a means for putting others down. 'Nervous cluelessness' says it all, I fear. I've said for a long time that grammar is the last great societal taboo in American culture; you can get into more trouble talking about grammar (or rather, 'grammar', as you will be interpreted if you actually try to discuss real grammar) than virtually any other subject.

  2. Q. Pheevr said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    The whole question can be neatly circumvented by the simple addition of a comma: If you eat, like, Bob and me, you will be, like, a cannibal, you know?

    [(myl) Nicely done — except that you've added more than one comma. And perhaps it should be I mean, if you eat, like, Bob and me, you will be, like, basically, a cannibal, you know? Why leave any peeve unprodded? ]

  3. Craig Russell said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    As I was reading this, a commercial came on the TV in which a spokeswoman said something to the effect of:

    "If you're like me, you have problems finding a ________ that works."

    I imagine a prescriptivist would find fault with this, but what would they suggest as a correction?

    "If you're like I…"? –Hopelessly awkward.
    "If you're like I am…"? –Nope, that uses 'like' to introduce a clause.
    "If you're as I…"? –Worse than the first one.
    "If you're as I am…"? –Actually hard to understand; sounds like a word is missing.

    So what's the prescriptivist advice? Just be uncertain about it and worry, I guess.

  4. The Ridger said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    Obviously, "If you are a person similar to me…"

  5. AJD said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    The prescriptivist advice is that "If you're like me" is correct.

  6. peter said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    But surely prescriptivists don't ever say "If you're like me . ." or any of its equivalents, since they think themselves superior to other speakers of the language.

  7. Stephen Jones said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    Prescriptivists don't think anybody's like them, so the problem doesn't arise.

  8. Craig Russell said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

    Wait–AJD is right. The consistent prescriptivist would advocate for "If you're like me." I think I was confusing the prescription about like (that it can never be used as a conjunction) with the one against than (that it can only be used as a conjunction.) I imagine that these two precepts can cause a fair amount of grief for people who try to follow "the rules", because somewhat similar situations lead to two different prescriptions:

    "He's big, like me." (like is a preposition, and requires an object pronoun)


    "He's bigger than I." (than is a conjunction, and requires a subject pronoun to correlate with "he")

    Of course it all makes perfect sense if if you know Latin, because then you can just remember that "like" is equal to "similis" and takes the dative, but "than" is equal to the conjunction "quam". Because English grammar has to be just like Latin if it's going to be right.

  9. Craig Russell said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Now that I've posted, I realize that 'similis' is an adjective, not a preposition. Has "like" ever functioned as an adjective in English? Is that why older writers would couple it with another preposition? ("like to _______", "like unto ______")

    Or maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about…

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 6:32 pm

    "Like" is still an adjective in "Like charges repel", and other like constructions. That's not like, "Like, charges repel."

    By the way, this isn't the first time I've seen someone criticize prescriptivism and in the process prescribe the correct usage of the word "grammar".

  11. Craig Russell said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    If you're referring to what I said about Latin, maybe I didn't make it clear that I was trying to be sarcastic–referring to the old prescriptivist notion that the reason for all the grammar rules that don't describe real usage is because English grammar must somehow map onto Latin grammar. Maybe that didn't come through. I have that problem sometimes on the Internet.

  12. Russinoff said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    Craig, I think you mean "the reason … is that" rather than "the reason … is because".
    It's a common blunder.

  13. Faldone said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    The prime rule of prescriptivism:

    If it works in practice, but not in theory, something must be wrong with the practice.

  14. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 15, 2009 @ 9:39 pm


    Also known as the Wikipedia Dilemma: "It only works in practice, never in theory"

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 12:46 am

    Sorry, Craig, I was referring to John Lawler's comments about grammar, 'grammar', and real grammar, which looked prescriptive to me. I should have been clearer.

    However, I'm willing to argue with you about Latin. I've read some prescriptivists and seldom seen an argument based on an analogy with Latin. I guess one could make a case that they're not admitting their real reasons.

    (While I'm on the subject, and speaking of Wikipedia, I'd be grateful for any citation before 1941 of someone condemning split infinitives because they're not like Latin or other languages. I'd add it to the Wikip article. No need for citations of people blaming the split-infinitive prohibition on prescriptivists who want English to be like Latin–I've got plenty of those.)

  16. Stephen Nicholson said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 2:56 am

    Well, the MWDEU speculates on page 868 that "the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis. The original cause for complaint was probably awareness of the relatively sudden marked increase in use of the construction, perhaps combined with the knowledge that in those more elegant languages, Latin and Greek, the infinitive is never split–because it is a single word distinguished by its ending rather than by an introductory particle."

    I could have sworn that I read somewhere that one of the explicit arguments given in the 19th century for disapproving splitting infinitives was that it was impossible to split them in Latin.

  17. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:02 am

    Does it have to be a peeve?

    I don't really care in a fundamental way which one it is. If one sounds wrong to me, I presume it's because I'm not used to hearing that one in that way. Which probably says something about the parts of the English-speaking world that I've been at home in, in my case Ireland and Scotland.

    But spontaneously, I'd have said this one is wrong:

    "Well, President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I to meet with him and First Lady Laura Bush."

    It's in here, 3rd question:

    I have the feeling that President Obama tends to do that fairly often, and I wonder what's going on. Do they talk like that in Honolulu, or in Harvard? Or does he semi-consciously feel that "and I" sounds more dignified?

  18. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:14 am

    "If you're like me, you have problems finding a ________ that works."

    I'd say, spot the extinct preposition between "like" and "me" which makes the "me" right. Like "unto". This like has a kind of dative-like movement in it.

  19. language hat said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    But spontaneously, I'd have said this one is wrong:

    "Well, President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I to meet with him and First Lady Laura Bush."

    Many people brought up on traditional "grammar" (it is not prescriptivist to say that use of the word is so misleading as to be useless) think that phrasinig is wrong, but it is extremely common and is probably now Standard Conversational American (I don't know what the situation is like in the U.K. or elsewhere). "X and I" is treated as a fixed phrase, and arguments of the type "but you wouldn't say 'he invited I'" are irrelevant — different structures are treated differently.

  20. Mark F. said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    On the face of it, it's actually pretty implausible that 17th or 18th century grammarians would declare a construction poor English because it would have been wrong in Latin. They knew Latin, and hence they really knew how different English grammar was. I realize they must have looked to Latin for the grammatical categories they worked with, and recognized parallels where they existed. But, given all the differences in inflectedness and characteristic word order, it's really hard to imagine why they would use Latin as a model for adverb (and, say, preposition) placement and nothing else. If they were really reasoning from Latin grammar, it would have made more sense for them just to abolish the "to" entirely.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    @Mark F.:
    I agree with you in general. I'd also be very interested in any prohibition of split infinitives from the 18th century, or any time before 1834.

    @language hat:

    I can see that when talking with your fellow linguists, you want to distinguish between between the meaning of "grammar" in linguistics and a meaning that's commonly used by others. I think it's prescriptivist to say that only one meaning is real (as John Lawler did). Using quotation marks for the other meaning looks to me a lot like saying that meaning is wrong.

    For some people, "X and I" is a fixed phrase only when it's not the subject of a sentence. Here are two sentences from an interview with the singer Uncle Kracker:

    "Me and him work so well together."

    "I said this before, but it’s the best analogy I have for he and I is that I don’t talk very much when it comes to just general – usually I’m pretty quiet – and he never shuts the fuck up."

  22. Stephen Nicholson said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    "X and I" is treated as a fixed phrase, and arguments of the type "but you wouldn't say 'he invited I'" are irrelevant — different structures are treated differently.

    You know, I think you've given me a clue to one of the burning questions I have about the way Americans speak. I'll say or hear: I went to the store. or Susie and I went to the store., but it would sound wrong to me to hear I and Susie went to the store. If X and I is a fixed phrase, but I and X isn't, that would suggest to me that it's uncommon (at least in the U.S.) to hear I and X.

    One of the things I do hear is Me and Z at the beginning of a sentence despite it being near or at the top of many peoples' list of pet peeves. I still find that very odd.

  23. Russinoff said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    I too can appreciate Language Hat's complaint that "use of the word is so misleading as to be useless", but what is it that makes his concern for `grammar' more legitimate than mine for, say, `infer' or `decimate' or `multiple'?

    It's a sincere question, asked in hope of gaining a better understanding of y'all's point of view.

  24. Mark F said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    Russinoff —

    Well, for my part I disagree with language hat's claim about use of the word "grammar." I think it really is a grammatical question whether "If you eat like Bob and me…" is correct. There is a distinction between grammar and usage that I think I make, and a lot of people don't, but failure to make that distinction isn't enough to sap the word of its meaning.

    Language Hat is right that lots of Americans treat "X and I" as a fixed phrase, it having replaced the fixed phrase "me and X" that they were nagged out of as kids. But lots of Americans, I think, have the same intuition you do. I do, anyway.

  25. BenHemmens said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 5:45 pm

    Language Hat:
    "…it is extremely common and is probably now Standard Conversational American…"

    What's the opposite of a Chinese person learning English at the nth remove from native speakers?

    It's a native speaker like me, oh, 15 years or so out of the English-speaking world and starting to feel he's losing touch. Given, in addition, that our household language is developing in the direction of a creole, I sometimes wonder if I'll still be able to translate into English in, say 20 years.

    It's interesting that you mention the "me" version being drummed out of kids, that's roughly what what I remember from school, too: at least all the correction was in the direction of less "me" and more "I" (school in the 70s and 80s in Ireland). Maybe not just Obama, but large swathes of our generation are hypercorrecting. Does anyone study "peeves of English teachers that go mainstream"?

    Though I don't really have the impression that this particular quirk is gaining ground in Those Islands.

  26. BenHemmens said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    "They knew Latin, and hence they really knew how different English grammar was."

    Ah, but datives exist in other languages than (modern) English, too. For example, in German we joke "Der Dativ ist dem Genetiv sein Tod", which if anything indicates that the dative is in rude good health. It certainly is in vernacular Austrian German, in which exactly that construction (for possession) is dominant.

    I wonder when and how the dative died out (or atrophied into whatever hidden vestiges still lurk, like whales' hind legs) in English?

    Not being a linguist, but a mere biochemist.

  27. Dan S said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 9:30 am

    'Hat and Ben Hemmer:

    I would think that "X and I" as object arises from nervous-clueless hypercorrection (which lawyers, like POTUS, tend towards) driven by the prescription against the otherwise-correct "It is me",

    You hear "invited X and I" but not "invited I", I'll suggest, only because the latter is more-obviously wrong, exposing the hypercorrection.

    If I'm right about this, then to cover the excellent Kracker observation from Jerry F we need a special case for "me and X" as subject, which overrides whatever rule prevents "I and X {VP}".

  28. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    "I would think that "X and I" as object arises from nervous-clueless hypercorrection (which lawyers, like POTUS, tend towards)"

    I think it's very touching if some small part of Obama is still trying to talk like it thinks it should, because it's in Harvard now.

  29. Anak said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    The MWDEU quote above says that when stressed, it's "c'est moi" in French. And when it is not stressed, what is it–"c'est je"? It also says that the "French system does not work in reverse." What does that mean?

    As for Obama, one of my pet peeves is how he ALWAYS pronounces "to" as "tah," never rhyming it with "two." I think he should switch registers there, but maybe that's how they talk at Harvard now…

  30. Edward Vanderpump said,

    January 25, 2013 @ 5:46 am

    Watching Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, two years behind in UK. In addition to the usual, they make extensions into new territory eg "A friend of Kim and I's".

RSS feed for comments on this post