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Between you and me: A grammatical misfortune in the making

These days, it is not uncommon for someone to be corrected for saying “That’s between you and me” or “Send that to him and me.” As many of you know all too well, the pseudo-grammarian alerting the speaker to the supposed error wants to hear “between you and I” and “to he and I.” It’s painful to even write those phrases, but it is an example of the unfortunate reality known as hypercorrection.

Hypercorrection is the misapplication or overextension of a grammar rule that results in an error and is the result of a partial or incomplete understanding of the grammar structure in question. For example, people have been corrected for saying “Me and John are going to the store. Wanna come along?” and are told “You should say ‘John and I’ not ‘John and me.’” As a result, people develop a negative reaction to the phrase “John and me.” It becomes grammatically taboo to a certain extent.

Those who have been corrected avoid “John and me” at all costs, essentially overextending the territory of “John and I” to all grammatical spaces. They end up saying things like “That’s between John and I.” The problem is that the two referents “John and I” in the last example are objects not subjects. While “John” is a form that remains the same whether it is a subject or object, the first person singular in English has distinct forms for subject and object, which are “I” and “me,” respectively. Prepositions (words such as “between,” “with” or “to”) are followed by object pronouns in English not subject pronouns.

This means that one should actually say, “That’s between John and me.” A good way to check this grammatically is to take out “John” and just focus on the word “me.” We can all immediately detect that there is something really wrong with the phrases “between I,” “with I” or “give that to I.”

The pronoun “me” is not the only victim of hypercorrection. There are also too many examples of “he” and “she” incorrectly taking the place of “him” and “her.” If you listen, you will likely hear someone say something like “Last weekend, I went to my nephew’s wedding. I purchased a lovely gift for he and she.” Recently, I heard someone say, “That’s something for she and I to decide when we get there.” Like “me,” “him” and “her” are now often considered incorrect when they are found in the object position.

We see this same process at work with “who” and “whom.” “Who” is the subject pronoun and “whom” is the object pronoun, but people have been corrected for using “who” incorrectly so they grant “whom” a special status, putting it in all kinds of unexpected places in an effort to “sound correct” or make their speech appear more sophisticated. One startling, real life example that recently came to my attention is the following: “Anyone whom does not pay their bill at the time of service. …” Another is “We cannot see anyone including children … whom do not have a valid ID.” When I lived in Illinois, a friend told me about a news conference during which a chief of police, responding to questions about a recent spate of robberies, very seriously warned that “We will catch who or whomever is responsible for these robberies.” Interestingly, this misuse appears to create a semantic distinction between “who” and “whom” so that “whom” indicates a much more serious villain and will perhaps receive a much more serious punishment.

Hypercorrection is the reason we find apostrophes marking plural nouns, the subject of a recent column. One of my friends has noticed that somewhere on 29 North there is a sign outside of a store announcing quilts’ for sale. For years in Scottsville, you could see a sign for the now closed store Country Blessings that had been the target of an angry hypercorrectionist. The once perfectly acceptable sign must have offended someone who has suffered the humiliation of having his or her grammar corrected. This must be why this person felt compelled to take a black marker and add a large, rather ugly apostrophe to the sign so that it read ‘Country Blessings.’ And this perhaps is the most unfortunate result of hypercorrection. It deputizes perfectly normal people turning them into angry, unauthorized grammar police who feel they have a moral responsibility to correct your perfectly fine “between you and me” because they are convinced that it should be “between you and I.” Hypercorrection in this specific context has been so effective and is now so widespread, even in academia, that many are predicting it will eventually become the “right” or acceptable way to say it. Between you and me, that is unfortunate.

Julia Palmer is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.