Its one thing for a supposedly combative press to fawn over a presidential candidateand now a president. Who wants to devote precious column inches to Barack Obamas ties to radical bomber Bill Ayers when Sarah Palins wardrobe demands investigation? Why shoot ordinary photographs of the president when you can portray him as a haloed Byzantine saint? But now the New York Times has gone too far: it is attempting to rewrite the history of English grammar in order to flatter the president.
Patricia T. OConner and Stewart Kellerman, writing in the papers op-ed section today, point out that Obama often makes a common grammatical error, using the word I when he should properly use meas in the phrase a very personal decision for Michelle and I. But it turns out, the authors continue, that the president isnt really guilty of grammar crimes. For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either I or me as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after and, they write. It wasnt until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about I and me.
OConner and Kellerman are utterly wrong, as you can confirm by taking a quick look at English primers a good deal older than the nineteenth century. To understand these early grammar guides, remember that scholars in England sometimes thought about their native language in terms of Latin, which they studied exhaustively. In Latin, all nouns are altered according to how they are used in a sentence; to use the word for queen as a subject, you would employ the nominative case and write regina, but to use it as a direct object, you would employ the accusative case and write reginam. In English, we dont usually decline nouns into casesa queen is a queen, whether the queen is eating cake or the peasants are beheading the queenbut we do, of course, decline pronouns: she eats cake, but the peasants behead her.
With that in mind, take a look at Charles Butlers The English Grammar, published way back in 1633. The book provides a neat little table of English pronouns, with the first column showing singular pronouns to be used as subjects (I, thou, he, she, and it) and the second showing pronouns in what Butler calls the oblique case (me, thee, him, her, and it). Jeremiah Whartons The English-grammar (1654) takes a slightly different approach, with a table of first-person English pronouns divided into Latins six cases (the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, and ablative). Only in the nominative case (again, what we think of as the sentences subject) is the pronoun I; it is me in every other case (except the vocative, in which no first-person pronoun can exist).
What all this means is that those evil Victorians werent the ones who invented what we think of today as good English grammar. Proper use of the language always specified that when you used the first-person pronoun as an object, you would say me, not I. Its true, as OConner and Kellerman argue, that great writers sometimes got it wrong (their first example is Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice: All debts are cleared between you and I). But this means only that writers, even great ones, have never been perfect. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers like Shakespeare were generally careless about grammatical rules, and even in the nineteenth century, when people became more careful about grammar, some great writers proved more diligent than others: mistakes are commoner in Dickens than in George Eliot, for example. And of course theres also the possibility that Shakespearewhose feel for colloquial language was, like everything else about him, superbwas writing in the voice of a character whose grammar, like Obamas, wasnt perfect.
OConners and Kellermans motive for making so wild a grammatical claim is clear. Those who style themselves grammar experts are always tempted to deride the kvetching of pedantic mavens. How else, if you specialize in a subject as dry-sounding as grammar, can you make people think youre not a bore yourself? Its far more exciting to make claims that nobody expects you to make: that the English language isnt bound by a bunch of abstruse rules; that those rules were concocted by Victorian pseudo-scholars with nothing better to do; that the language was natural and unconfined before the nineteenth century got its hands on it.
Unfortunately, the New York Timess motive for printing the op-ed is also clear. How disappointing to hear that Barack Obamajust like his predecessor, whose linguistic slipups the media pounced ondoesnt speak English perfectly! How delightful to find two experts willing to argue that Obamas mistakes are actually remnants of a purer, more natural form of the language! And how sad, for those of us who love both Americas press and its language, that English itself has become the latest sacrifice to the cult of Obama.
Benjamin A. Plotinsky is the managing editor of City Journal.