Monday, November 19, 2007

Nominative No-Nos

One grammatical error that really bothers me is the abuse of the nominative.

Oh the accusative--that precious jewel neglected by so many youth in favor of that noxious nominative.

As young children, most of us were taught that we were wrong to say things like,

"Me and Joey want to play Nintendo, mom!"

or even worse

"Why can't me and him play Nintendo, mom?"

[Parenthetically, every time I remember how much time I spent playing Nintendo/Commodore/Apple games, I make a mental note to be more lenient.]

Clearly those sentences are grammatically grotesque, and so we were taught to say,

"Joey and I want to play Nintendo, mom!"


"Why can't he and I play Nintendo, mom?"

This was a great rule to make sure the nominative is used when it is supposed to be used, but of course that raises another question:

What is this elusive nominative; that word that I've been abusing in its own right, as a means to bother you who have forgotten or never learned it?

Put simply, it is the form of a pronoun that is the subject of a sentence. Put even more simply, when you have words like I/me and he/him, we see that both I and me and he and him refer to the same person.

In these two sentences, we see what is intuitive to most of us:

I hate him.
He hates me.

In the top sentence I am doing the hating, while in the bottom he is.

Thus, I and he indicate those that are the subject, indicating them to be nominative pronouns.

Perhaps it is the egocentrism of a child's mind that puts themselves as the subject of every sentence, but as a general rule, saying "he and I" is correct as long as you and this fictitious he are the subject. But if you are the object, our amiable amateur the accusative approaches the arsenal.

For the accusative case means just the opposite--it comprises the object of the sentence.

Returning to our small sentences, "him" and "me" refer to those who are being hated in the two sentences, so "him" and "me" make up the object of the sentence, which we call the accusative case.

So as children, our teachers were right to tell us to not say "me and Joe", as long as this counsel was specific to a situation where "I" was the subject. But if the sentence is about "me", of course we should have used "me"!

Unfortunately, we understood the fear of the accusative as some sort of immutable law, and we ended up neglecting poor Mr. Accusative.

How does this manifest itself? I'll put a quote from a friend's blog, that shows how we can turn our grammar minds off for fear of offending the overly simplistic teacher/parent that taught us to never neglect the nominative.

"earlier this week ****, who is four, was looking at a picture of he and i that was taken when he was a little over a year old."

Now I'm sure this particular friend would not make this error all of the time, and it was probably a mistake which slipped out due to busyness etc., but the point is that this mistake slips out quite frequently among many modern Americans. I would argue that this is due to a primordial fear of using "him" "me" when conjoined to another pronoun. Maybe it also comes from a fear of being branded an uncultured individual, clasping a Coors saying, "Me and him done loved that NASCAR race!", but that is another layer worthy of considerations at some other point in the space-time continuum.

At any rate, here's another way to challenge one's grammar, which I am sure is familiar to some:
If we take the errant sentence and isolate the two pronouns, the error becomes much easier to see.

Keeping the first pronoun we have:
"earlier this week ****, who is four, was looking at a picture of he that was taken when he was a little over a year old."

Keeping the second pronoun we have:
"earlier this week ****, who is four, was looking at a picture of i that was taken when he was a little over a year old."

None of us would ever use the nominative in place of the accusative when it's just one word on its own, and I would argue that this is because we were drilled so thoroughly on the specific matter of how to avoid the accusative.

So let us all shake our primordial fears and embrace "me and him" as we should.

That's what me and him said about I and he, at least.

I kid, I kid (though mostly to myself).

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