It’s one thing for a supposedly combative press to fawn over a presidential candidate—and now a president. Who wants to devote precious column inches to Barack Obama’s ties to radical bomber Bill Ayers when Sarah Palin’s 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. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, writing in the paper’s op-ed section today, point out that Obama often makes a common grammatical error, using the word “I” when he should properly use “me”—as in the phrase “a very personal decision for Michelle and I.” But it turns out, the authors continue, that the president isn’t 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 wasn’t until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about ‘I’ and ‘me.’”
O’Conner 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 don’t usually decline nouns into cases—a queen is a queen, whether “the queen is eating cake” or “the peasants are beheading the queen”—but we do, of course, decline pronouns: she eats cake, but the peasants behead her.
With that in mind, take a look at Charles Butler’s 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 Wharton’s The English-grammar (1654) takes a slightly different approach, with a table of first-person English pronouns divided into Latin’s six cases (the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, and ablative). Only in the nominative case (again, what we think of as the sentence’s 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 weren’t 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.” It’s true, as O’Conner 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 there’s also the possibility that Shakespeare—whose feel for colloquial language was, like everything else about him, superb—was writing in the voice of a character whose grammar, like Obama’s, wasn’t perfect.
O’Conner’s and Kellerman’s 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 you’re not a bore yourself? It’s far more exciting to make claims that nobody expects you to make: that the English language isn’t 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 Times’s motive for printing the op-ed is also clear. How disappointing to hear that Barack Obama—just like his predecessor, whose linguistic slipups the media pounced on—doesn’t speak English perfectly! How delightful to find two experts willing to argue that Obama’s mistakes are actually remnants of a purer, more natural form of the language! And how sad, for those of us who love both America’s press and its language, that English itself has become the latest sacrifice to the cult of Obama.