Between you and I

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For the Jessica Simpson song, see A Public Affair.

"Between you and I" is a phrase that has drawn considerable interest from linguists, grammarians, and stylists, since it appears to contain a grammatical error: according to many grammarians and stylists a pronoun in a prepositional phrase in English is supposed to be in the oblique case—that is, according to many authors, Shakespeare, who used the phrase in The Merchant of Venice (1596–98), should have written "between you and me".

Shakespeare's use of the phrase has been described as a grammatical error "of unsurpassable grossness",[a] although whether it was in fact an error is a matter of debate. Modern linguists for the most part agree that "between you and I" is an example of grammatical hypercorrection, though there is still disagreement on whether the phrase itself in today's language is grammatically correct or not.

Shakespeare's use, responses[edit]

"Between you and I" occurs in Act 3, scene 2, of The Merchant of Venice, in a letter written in prose by Antonio, the titular character, to his friend Bassanio:[4][5]

Sweet Bassanio, ... all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death.[6]

Shakespeare was far from the only one to use the phrase: writer and critic Henry Hitchings points at usage in William Congreve's The Double Dealer (1693) and in Mark Twain's letters.[7] Otto Jespersen found similar examples ("pronouns or nouns plus I after a preposition", in Robert J. Menner's words) in Ben Jonson, John Bunyan, Charles Dickens, and Graham Greene, and Menner adds Noah Webster, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Middleton, and others.[8]

Various critics have commented on Shakespeare's line. American writer Russell Baker, in his "Observer" column in The New York Times, considered it a grammatical error—"grammatically, of course, Shakespeare was wrong". He said Shakespeare probably "slipped accidentally": "My guess is that he was writing along rapidly, maybe at the end of the day when he was tired, was wishing he'd never come up with this Merchant of Venice idea, and eager to get over to the Mermaid Tavern for a beer with Jonson and Burbage".[9] Menner, in a 1937 article in American Speech, says that "it is evident that the phrase you and I was often felt to be grammatically indivisible, perhaps of frequency, and that we "cannot even be sure that 'between you and I' was originally hypercorrect in the Elizabethan age"; Menner does not say whether he believes the usage to be correct or incorrect.[8]

Others do not accuse Shakespeare of grammatical incorrectness: sociologist Robert Nisbet criticizes "word snobs" who condemn the phrase,[10] and lexicographer and OED editor Robert Burchfield states that what is incorrect for us wasn't necessarily incorrect for Shakespeare: "grammatical assumptions were different then",[1] a view shared by philologist and grammarian Henry Sweet.[11] However, Bryan A. Garner, who writes on usage and (especially legal) language, writes that even if the phrase was not incorrect for Shakespeare, it is and should be considered incorrect today, and cites linguist Randolph Quirk: "It is true that Shakespeare used both ['between you and I' as well as 'between you and me'], but that did not make it any more correct".[1]

Incorrectness and hypercorrection[edit]

The term "hypercorrection" refers to mispronunciation or grammatically incorrect usage, and is typically committed by speakers (or writers) who "overcorrect" what they think is a mistake, and thereby commit an error in pronunciation or grammar.[8] Kenneth G. Wilson, author of The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993), says hypercorrections are "the new mistakes we make in the effort to avoid old ones", and cites "between you and I" as an example—better, he says, to say "between the two of us".[12]

For the phrase to be considered an example of hypercorrection, it has to be considered grammatically incorrect in the first place. Grammarians and writers on style who judge the phrase this way include Paul Brians,[13] the Oxford Dictionaries,[14] and Grammar Girl: "it's just a rule that pronouns following prepositions in those phrases are always in the objective case".[15] A BBC survey from the early 2000s found that listeners ranked "between you and I" first in "most annoying grammar mistakes".[16] But many grammarians and linguists, including Steven Pinker, consider the phrase grammatically acceptable.[17]

Supposed causes[edit]

The cause for this particular error is given by such authorities as a kind of trauma[15] deriving from incorrect usage caused by "you" being both nominative and oblique, and the awareness of the possible incorrectness of "me": "People make this mistake because they know it's not correct to say, for example, 'John and me went to the shops'. They know that the correct sentence would be 'John and I went to the shops'. But they then mistakenly assume that the words 'and me' should be replaced by 'and I' in all cases."[14] Writer Constance Hale notes that Ernest Hemingway frequently made such pronoun errors—"Gertrude Stein and me are just like brothers".[18] In The Language Wars (2011), Henry Hitchings provides a similar explanation, adding that for many speakers "you and I" seem to belong together,[7] which is noted also by Kenneth Wilson.[12] That the problem typically occurs when two pronouns are used together is widely recognized: "these problems rarely arise when the pronoun [I] stands alone".[19] James Cochrane, author of Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English (2004), gives a similar explanation—in this case, "people" feeling some unease with a sentence like "Me and Bill went out for beers"; Cochrane does not, however, mark it as a hypercorrection, and suggests the phrase only came about "in the last twenty or so years"[20]—linguist J. K. Chambers, however, points out that the usage is not "a change in progress".[21]

J. K. Chambers investigated the phrase (as well as the closely related "with you and I") in an analysis of the role of education in the grammaticality of English speakers, in this case from Canada. Data from ninth-graders and their parents indicated little regional variation, but a significant variation between children and their parents, with children being more likely to pick the "correct" pronoun or, in technical terms, to show "accusative case concord with conjoined pronouns". Chambers's explanation is that the children are likely to have had better education than their parents, and a study from 2008 of seven regions across Canada likewise showed that concord increased as the level of education increased. Chambers investigates a number of explanations offered, and accepts as one reason that the mistake occurs because of the considerable distance between the preposition and the second pronoun.[21]

Hypercorrection, contextual acceptability[edit]

More complex explanations than "trauma" or "unease" are provided by linguists and sociolinguists. Without expanding on the topic, Henry Hitchings considers the phrase a very specific, class-oriented kind of hypercorrection, which he calls "hyperurbanism", which "involves avoiding what is believed to be a 'low' mistake and using a supposedly classier word or pronunciation, although in fact the result is nothing of the sort".[7] A similar reason is given by Bryan Garner (pace Chambers), who says "this grammatical error is committed almost exclusively by educated speakers trying a little too hard to sound refined but stumbling badly", and says the phrase is "appallingly common".[1] The notion that educated people are prone to this error is shared by Grammar Girl, who says that Jessica Simpson can therefore be forgiven (for the 2006 song "Between You and I").[22] According to legal scholar Patricia J. Williams, however, members of "the real upper class" recognize it immediately as substandard; she comments that such usage easily marks one as belonging to a lower class.[23] Sociolinguist Gerard van Herk discusses "between you and I" and similar phrases with pronoun errors (which are all incorrect according to prescriptive linguists) in the context of social mobility.[24]

One of the most notable linguists to accept the grammaticality of "between you and I" is Steven Pinker, even though he still calls it a "hyper-corrected solecism". Pinker's argument, in short, is that individual elements in coordinates do not have to have the same number as the coordinate itself: "she and Jennifer are" has two singular coordinates, though the coordination itself is plural. The same, Pinker argues in The Language Instinct (1994), applies to case, citing a famous phrase used by Bill Clinton and criticized by William Safire: "So just because [Al Gore and I] is an object that requires object case, it does not mean that [I] is an object that requires object case. By the logic of grammar, the pronoun is free to have any case it wants".[17] Linguist Ben Yagoda, impressed by this argument, divides his thinking on the phrase's grammaticality in a pre-Pinker and a post-Pinker period,[16] and Peter Brodie, in a special issue of The English Journal devoted to grammar and usage, is likewise persuaded: "he also reminds us that these rules are generally dictated by snobbery and conceived as mere shibboleths".[25] While David D. Mulroy, in The War Against Grammar (2003), finds Pinker's argument not entirely persuasive, he says "these are matters on which reasonable people can disagree".[26]

According to linguist Joshua Fishman the phrase is, in some circles, "considered to be perfectly OK even in print", while others accept it "only in some contexts", and yet others never accept it at all.[27] Richard Redfern cites many examples of what is considered incorrect pronoun usage, many of which do not follow the "preposition + you and I" construction: "for he and I", "between he and Mr. Bittman". He argues that the "error" is widespread (Elizabeth II even committing it), and that it should become acceptable usage: "The rule asks native speakers of English to stifle their instinctive way of expressing themselves".[28]

In its treatment of "coordinate nominatives" used where the accusative (oblique) case would be used in non-coordinate constructions, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language differentiates different levels of acceptance, depending on the pronouns used and their position in the coordinate construction. Thus, a construction like "without you or I knowing anything about it" is "so common in speech and used by so broad a range of speakers that it has to be recognised as a variety of Standard English", while examples like "they've awarded he and his brother certificates of merit" and "... return the key to you or she" are classified as grammatically incorrect hypercorrection.[29]


  1. ^ The description of "between you and I" as a grammatical error of "unsurpassable grossness" is attributed by Bryan Garner to an unnamed "one commentator".[1] Bill Bryson attributes it to John Simon,[2] who apparently used the term in reference to Tennessee Williams's alleged use of "between he and I".[3]


  1. ^ a b c d Garner, Bryan (2009). Garner's Modern American Usage. Oxford UP. pp. 102–103. ISBN 9780199888771. 
  2. ^ Bryson, Bill (2002). Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Crown Publishing Group. between you and I. ISBN 9780767910477. 
  3. ^ Walentis, Al (24 August 1980). "Simon Says Don't Play Games With Grammar". Reading Eagle. Crown. 
  4. ^ Bryant, Joseph Allen (1986). Shakespeare & the Uses of Comedy. Lexington: UP of Kentucky. p. 89. ISBN 9780813130958. 
  5. ^ Kahn, Coppelia (2010). "The Cuckoo's Note: Male Friendship and Cuckoldry in The Merchant of Venice". In Harold Bloom. William Shakespeare's the Merchant of Venice. Infobase. pp. 19–29. ISBN 9781438134352. 
  6. ^ Shakespeare, William (1994). Taylor, Gary; Wells, Stanley, eds. The Complete Works. Oxford: Clarendon. pp. 425–51. ISBN 9780198182849. 
  7. ^ a b c Hitchings, Henry (2011). The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 187–88. ISBN 9781429995030. 
  8. ^ a b c Menner, Robert J. (1937). "Hypercorrect forms in American English". American Speech. 12 (3): 167–78. 
  9. ^ Baker, Russell (6 July 1988). "Observer: A Slip of the Quill". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 July 2014. 
  10. ^ Nisbet, Robert A. (1983). Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary. Cambridge: Harvard UP. p. 270. ISBN 9780674700666. 
  11. ^ Sweet, Henry (1892). A Short Historical English Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon. p. 104. 
  12. ^ a b Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. New York: Columbia UP. p. 230. ISBN 9780231069892. 
  13. ^ Brians, Paul. "I/me/myself/". Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  14. ^ a b "Between you and me". Oxford Dictionary of English. 2014. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Fogarty, Mignon. "Grammar Girl: Between You and Me". Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  16. ^ a b Yagoda, Ben (2014). You Need to Read This: The Death of the Imperative Mode, the Rise of the American Glottal Stop, the Bizarre Popularity of "Amongst," and Other Cuckoo Things That Have Happened to the English Language. Penguin. p. 58. ISBN 9780698157828. 
  17. ^ a b Pinker, Steven (24 January 1994). "Grammar Puss". The New Republic. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  18. ^ Hale, Constance (2001). Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Crown. p. 67. ISBN 9780767908924. 
  19. ^ Manser, Martin (2011). Good Word Guide: The Fast Way to Correct English - Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar and Usage. A&C Black. p. 157. ISBN 9781408123324. 
  20. ^ Cochrane, James (2005). Between You and I: A Little Book of Bad English. Sourcebooks. p. 14. ISBN 9781402203312. 
  21. ^ a b Chambers, J. K. (2009). "Education and the Enforcement of Standard English". In Kawaguchi, Yuji; Minegishi, Makoto; Durand, Jacques. Corpus Analysis and Variation in Linguistics. John Benjamins. pp. 53–66. ISBN 9789027207685. 
  22. ^ Fogarty, Mignon (2009). The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Holt. p. 20. ISBN 9781429964401. 
  23. ^ Touré (2011). Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now. Simon and Schuster. p. 185. ISBN 9781439177570. 
  24. ^ Herk, Gerard Van (2012). What Is Sociolinguistics. Wiley. p. 54. ISBN 9781405193191. 
  25. ^ Brodie, Peter (1996). "Never Say NEVER: Teaching Grammar and Usage". The English Journal. 85 (7): 77–78. 
  26. ^ Mulroy, David D. (2003). The war against grammar. Boynton/Cook. ISBN 9780867095517. 
  27. ^ Fishman, Joshua A. European Vernacular Literacy. Multilingual Matters. p. 1. ISBN 9781847694782. 
  28. ^ Redfern, Richard K. (1996). "Pronouns Are Highly Personal". The English Journal. 85 (7): 80–81. 
  29. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 463. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.