Monday, May 28, 2018

Me and Ms. Barker

This morning my Facebook feed fed me a story that was meant to be about a heartwarming event, but ended up being about grammar.

The headline read, “5th grade students thought these two teachers were dating—but watch how one addresses the rumor.”

And the blurb was a quote from one of the two teachers in the story: “Raise your hand if you have heard a rumor about Ms. Barker and I.”

Not surprisingly, the comment that floated to the top of the feed was one calling attention to the teacher’s grammar, pointing out that the correct form would have been “about Ms. Barker and me.”

And the reason the comment rose so high, was that people flooded in to tell the commenter that she was wrong—the correct form, many people insisted, is “about Ms. Barker and I.”

There were those who merely observed something along the lines of, “He was speaking, not writing, and it was an emotional situation. It’s pretty normal, in the course of speech, to say something ungrammatical.”

Fair enough.

Some people objected, “But he’s a math teacher! Don’t knock him for getting grammar wrong.”

First, I would hope that all teachers would have a good command of English, regardless of their particular subject matter. I’ll come back to that with the question of prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar.

Second, the logic behind the correct form feels almost mathematical to me, so it’s hardly a strong defense of the speaker to say, “He’s a mathematician.” I’ll come back to this as well.

The most striking thing in the comment thread was how many people piled in to say the teacher was right.

There was the simple snark, telling the commenter to go ask her English teacher for a refund.

Some correctors of the corrector were quite emphatic:
This is an issue that needs to be addressed by Departments of Education - it just proves that people do not know how to use grammar correctly, when people are correcting those who ARE GRAMMATICALLY correct. "Mrs Baker and I" is absolutely correct.
Or, “It’s The King and I, not The King and Me”

Ad infinitum.

What’s at play here is presumably the classic over-correction. As a kid, someone said, “Me and Joey were at the park,” and a parent or teacher said, “No, the proper form is, ‘Joey and I were at the park’.”

The correctee just remembered the form “___ and I,” without ever understanding that they were being corrected on two issues simultaneously, one of etiquette (putting others first) and one of grammar (subject vs. object pronouns).

And this is where I see the parallel to math.

A student is given the equation 2(x + 5) = 14 and is asked to solve for x.

Sometimes they approach it by multiplying through the parentheses to get 2x + 10 = 14, 2x = 4, x = 2.

But given the same problem on another day, they might proceed as 2x + 5 = 14, 2x = 9, x = 4.5.

Or given the starting point 2x + 5 = 9, they turn it into 2x + 10 = 9, then go to 2x = -1, and end up with x = -0.5.

They haven’t learned the logic of how parentheses are used in algebra, and so they reach back rather randomly for an example that feels similar to what is staring at them from the page.

And so they have about a 50/50 chance of getting it right.

But what really struck me was the dogged commitment to illogic.

The original commenter gamely tries to use logic:
“To all those saying it is correct: theres a simple trick used to teach children which one to use. You simply remove the other person. So for "if you have heard a rumour about mrs barker and i" you remove mrs barker. Does "raise your hand if you have heard a rumour about i" sound correct to you?”
And is immediately shot down:
“you are totally wrong as others have stated. You can't legitimately make the comparison you just have so of course it doesn't work. At least, in the UK this is what we are taught... You know, English.”
Another commenter said that, sure, “about me” is correct, but when you throw in the other person, it needs to be “about Ms. Barker and I,” because it’s plural.

I look at those responses and I can’t help but make a connection to our current political situation, not just in the U.S. but in lots of democracies around the world.

It’s not that all the people insisting on “about Ms. Barker and I” are Trump voters. I have no evidence of that one way or the other.

But during the campaign, one of the oft-heard reasons for supporting Trump was, “He tells it like it is, he says what he means, he doesn’t worry about being ‘politically correct’.”

And then if you brought up some horrible remark Trump made, the same person would say, “Oh, he didn’t mean that.”

That’s the same quality of thinking that can look at a clear explanation of the “I/me” problem and refuse to even try to understand it.

To wrap this up, there’s the question of prescriptive vs. descriptive approaches to grammar. A prescriptive approach says, “These are the rules. You need to follow them.” The rules are a mix of actual usage at a particular time in the past, and the logical application of principles that are visible in actual usage.

A descriptive approach asks, What do native speakers of the language say?

From a prescriptive perspective, “about Ms. Barker and I” is simply wrong, and it makes my ears hurt.

But looked at descriptively, it may be the future of English: When the first person is combined with a second or third person, the first-person pronoun comes after any others in the phrase, and the pronoun form is always “I”, regardless of the grammatical role of the phrase.

I’ve been spending the year in Prague, functioning part of my time in Czech. Like most Slavic languages, Czech is very dependent on what’s known as “case,” when the forms of words (in this instance, nouns and adjectives) change depending on their grammatical role.

“Je to dobrá kniha.” It’s a good book.

“Znám dobrou knihu.” I know a good book.

And there are seven different cases for expressing the role that a noun phrase is playing in a sentence, or its relationship to a preposition.

English lost almost all of its case structure centuries ago. We’re left with this little remnant in the form of I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, and who/whom. Back when we still used “thou,” we had cases in our second-person pronoun as well: thou/thee, but the remaining pronoun is undifferentiated: you/you.

And this is where I come back to people’s argument that he’s a math teacher, so his grammar doesn’t matter.

That implies that the distinction between “I” and “me” is an unimportant one. Sure, your English teacher should know it, but there’s really no point in a math teacher being able to use it correctly. In other words, I/me is a distinction that matters when you’re taking an English test, but otherwise has no bearing on correct use of the language.

If that’s true, then descriptively, “about Ms. Barker and I” is already correct.

English has preserved only this little shred of case structure, and apparently even this remnant is headed for the dustbin of history, and I is leading the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment