Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

We and They

Posted by Neal on October 7, 2013

I was asking Doug about his classes a couple of weeks ago, and a little tingle of anticipation went up my spine when he told me that in English class that day, his teacher had been talking about grammar. Yes! It was about time for some grammar, after all that business with their summer reading project, and this “narrative” thing they were starting to write. What kind of grammar?

“We were learning to say things that sound wrong.”

Things that sound wrong? Like “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”? This might be shaping up to be the best high-school English class ever.

“Like ‘we and they,'” Doug said. “She said, ‘I know people don’t actually talk like this, but you gotta learn it.'”

So much for best high-school English class ever. But, Doug — we’ve talked about this before! Don’t you remember? You were in fourth grade! I can remember it as clearly as if I’d written a blog post about it…

For those of you who didn’t follow the link, Doug lost a few points on a grammar worksheet when he was given the sentence “him and her take ice skating lessons on wednesday” to correct. He sidestepped the issue of the coordinated pronouns and corrected it like this: “They take ice skating lessons on Wednesday.” As I wrote at the time, “She had wanted them to change him and her to he and she, Doug said, but that sounded weird.”

But this time around, I noticed, the pronouns were plural. It wasn’t the typical he and I instead of him and me, or she and he instead of him and her. This time it was we and they. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know if some speakers tended to say us and them where Standard English would call for we and they. If they do, it certainly isn’t enough to land injunctions against us and them are in the grammar manuals, much less enough to give us hypercorrections like between we and they. I decided to take a look at COCA to see how often coordinations like we and they actually did come up.

I searched for all coordinations involving clearly plural animate personal pronouns (we/us, they/them) coordinated with pronouns that were clearly singular (I/me, he/him, she/her) or clearly plural. (In other words, no you.) I searched for coordinations of nominative with nominative (e.g. we and they), and accusative with accusative (e.g. us and them). I also looked for both mixed cases (for example, we and them and us and they), but didn’t get any hits there. Here are the results:

Coordinated pronouns
All nominative COCA hits All accusative COCA hits
I and we 1 me and us 3/0
we and I 0 us and me 0/0
I and they 0 me and them 32/1
they and I 15 them and me 22/0
he and we 13 him and us 19/0
we and he 3 us and him 7/0
he and they 35 him and them 18/0
they and he 4 them and him 8/0
she and we 9 her and us 5/0
we and she 2 us and her 2/0
she and they 8 her and them 10/0
they and she 3 them and her 2/0
we and they 9 us and them ~115/0
they and we 19 them and us 61/0

The first thing to notice is that people do use coordinated nominative personal pronouns, at levels comparable to the use of coordinated accusative personal pronouns. This is especially true when you consider that there are more occasions to use accusatives than nominatives. You use the accusative forms for direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, and (for all but the most insistently archaic rules) complements of be — not to mention pronouns in isolation. The only thing the nominatives are used for is subjects.

The second thing to notice is the slashes between the numbers in the accusative hits column. The first number represents attestations for which Standard English rules would prescribe accusative (for example, between us and them). The numbers after the slashes represent the examples for which the rules would prescribe nominative (for example, us and them are… instead of we and they are). (I counted complements of be as a context where we would expect the accusative case.) The numbers show that not only do speakers use nominative forms like we and they where they’re called for; they generally don’t use accusative forms like us and them in those places. In all the coordinations I tested, I found only one nonstandard example: “Yeah, me and them are buds,” I said.

By comparison, if you do a COCA search for the coordination of singular pronouns me and him, in the first page of results, you’ll find example after example of it being used as nonstandardly as a subject, and hardly any examples of it being used standardly as an object.

Here is a list of examples of each kind of coordinated nominative personal pronoun I found:

  1. I was assured that as long as I created scenes, behavior and dialogue consistent with the way they were depicted in the book — which resulted in a lawsuit — that I and we would be safe.
  2. In the middle of apologizing to them, I decided they and I needed to accept the reality
  3. disease

  4. He needed killing, and he and we needed it to be accomplished at the hands of Americans.
  5. He proceeds back to the doorway, where we and he see Fell,
  6. Was Hitler not fully Hitler, the Nazis the Nazis, until he and they annexed Poland?
  7. the passion and release that they and he crave so much.
  8. As you know, George, both she and we agreed to party rules
  9. the many meetings and public hearings on this issue in which we and she have participated
  10. Perhaps she and they somehow missed the last 50 years of Eastern European history.
  11. As she followed the frustrated felines she noticed that they and she had left footprints in the dust on the steps.
  12. We and they thank you for your cooperation in this time of national crisis,
  13. They and we have a right to expect better excuses for wrong-doing from our government

Why such a marked difference between coordinations of two singular pronouns and those involving a plural? Thomas Grano‘s 2006 honors thesis has a hell of a lot of other research about all kinds of coordinations of English pronouns with other pronouns and full NPs, but doesn’t seem to address this situations. Grano does develop a principle of frequency-based prescriptive conformity, which says that the more frequently some nonstandard form shows up, the more likely it is to be exposed to “prescriptive pressure” and changed to the standardized form. However, nonstandard us and them and the other coordinated accusative pronouns don’t seem to be very frequent at all, so the principle is silent here.

Meanwhile, I need to try to elicit some coordinations involving plural pronouns from Doug and Adam. If we and they sounds wrong to them, but us and them as a subject is so rare in the language input they’ve been hearing, what will they actually say?

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2 Responses to “We and They”

  1. the ridger said

    I would imagine they’d just say “we” or “they”. Occasions when you’d need to say “we and they” strike me as rare, and of the type where you’d do contrasting or emphasizing structures – “we need it and so do they” – instead.

  2. Jess said

    Great blog! Just had to give you a bonus point for your ‘us and them’ reference… Simple, subtle and sublime. Bravo.

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