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TWTS: "Between you and I" or "between you and me?" It's complicated.

Sometimes people send us questions that we avoid trying to answer. We don't do this to be mean.

The problem is, some questions we get have answers that are too long and complicated to explain within the confines of this segment.

This week though, we're throwing caution to the wind. We're finally going to tackle "between you and I."

The first thing to know about "between you and I" is that it's not new. A lot of people think it's new and are blaming today's young people for using it, but we've got examples of people using "between you and I" that go back to Middle English, including Chaucer.

In 1767, a writer named Archibald Campbell used "between you and I" in the first edition of a book and was subsequently corrected. In the next edition, Campbell included the correction and then wrote, "Though it must be confessed to be ungrammatical, it is yet almost universally used in familiar conversation."

See? Even as far back as 1767, someone was saying, "but everybody says it."

What's happening with "between you and I" is part of a bigger shift in the language. One thousand years ago, all nouns in English used to differentiate between subject and object. That distinction has completely disappeared except when it comes to pronouns. We still make a subject/object distinction with "he/him," "she/her," "we/us," and "they/them."

Did you notice that "you" is missing from that list? We used to have "ye" for subject and "you" for object, but that subject/object distinction has collapsed. Remember that. It collapsed, and we managed to survive.

There isn't much confusion when these pronouns appear by themselves. The confusion comes when they’re lumped into conjoined constructions with "and."

It may be that “(something) and I" is becoming a routinized or fixed phrase. If it's in subject position, you say, "My mother and I went to the store." If it's in object form, you still say, "She gave the present to my mother and I."

Some people might say that's wrong, because if you say, "to my mother and I," "mother and I" is the object of the preposition, "to." Therefore, they’d say, it should be "to my mother and me."

However, there are linguists who say there's no reason all the parts of this conjoined expression, "my mother and I," have to be an object. It could just be a fixed phrase, and the whole phrase is the object of the preposition.

"Between you and I" is all over the place. You'll find it in the university, you'll hear it on NPR, you'll hear politicians using it, etc. A lot of very educated people are using it. The question is, how many people have to use “between you and I” before it's considered educated usage?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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