Question: “Dear Jordan, I’m laughing again about your advice to ‘avoid the double is unless you’re writing dialogue for a show about organized crime.’ Grammar Guy, please never leave us who are chronically dismayed by the language lightweights, nimwits or numskulls. Once upon a time, I thought the cure could be listening to a recording of correct grammar versus bad grammar. Recently, I heard a highly successful leader misuse ‘between you and me’ (he said “I’). Is there ever a proper usage for ‘between you and I?’ (Barbara Purvis, Noblesville)
Answer: Barbara, thanks for writing in. I like the idea of listening to correctional grammar recordings. I have noticed – and perhaps you have too – that hearing or reading grammar used incorrectly seems to have much more “stickiness” in the brain than proper grammar. After years of editing, there are words I never had problems with before that I now constantly have to double check, just because I’ve seen them written incorrectly so many times.
At any rate, what we have in the phrase “between you and I” is a simple subject-object pronoun mismatch, and it’s one that is always incorrect. The word “between” is a preposition, and thus begins a prepositional phrase. We know that prepositional phrases require object pronouns like “him,” “us,” “them” or, in this case, “me.”
The tendency for some people to misuse “I” and “me” is due to a lack of confidence about subject-object pronoun rules. For example, a person might say “Jimmy and me went to the park.” They then get corrected (“It’s ‘Jimmy and I!’”), but the correction isn’t accompanied by an explanation of when it is appropriate to use “me.” The idea that “me” is somehow improper grammar gets internalized and “I” starts popping up where an object pronoun is needed. Reflexive pronouns, as we talked about last week with “myself,” often experience a similar misperception as more “formal” pronoun choices.
To help build up that confidence, remember this: Prepositional phrases need objects, and that means object pronouns. Throw “between you and I” in the refuse heap. While you are there, if you see any other grammar garbage lying around, shoot me an e-mail. I’m always hunting down column ideas.