Between You and I vs. Between You and Me

By Maeve Maddox

An ad for a new movie about the Hebrew exodus from Egypt shows Christian Bale as Moses–a character who has received a privileged and educated upbringing–shouting the words, “Something’s coming that is far beyond you and I!”

I noticed because beyond is a preposition and should be followed by the object form me, not the subject form I: “Something’s coming that is far beyond you and me!”

Note: The fact that English did not exist in the time of Moses is not relevant.

A more commonly heard ungrammatical prepositional phrase is “between you and I.” This error is so common that it has its defenders.

On a Slate post, podcast producer Mike Vuolo takes the position that correctness should be determined by what people “actually use.” He admits that “between you and I” contravenes the standard rule about prepositions being followed by me and not I, but claims that there is “a relatively modern theory…which may undermine that rule”:

Noam Chomsky and modern linguists…have a very persuasive theory that holds that in a construction like “between you and I, the entire phrase “you and I” is the object of the preposition and that for the individual elements within it the [grammatical] case becomes arbitrary.

He mentions a quotation from Shakespeare to prove that “between you and I” must be all right.

Note: For one example of “between you and I” in the entire works of Shakespeare, there are numerous examples of between followed by the object form me.

The Bard’s one use of “between you and I” appears in a letter from Bassanio, the merchant from whom Shylock has demanded a pound of flesh:

My bond to the Jew is forfeit; and since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I. –The Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene ii.

Shakespeare can teach us a lot about our language, but he’s not a reliable guide to modern standard usage. For example, in Julius Caesar, he has Antony say, “This is the most unkindest cut of all.” The most grammar-challenged modern speaker knows better than to double a superlative.

Vuolo cites an academic paper written by two sociolinguists that identifies and labels three competing permutations of the between prepositional phrase:

1. between you and me, “standard usage”

2. between you and I, “polite usage”
Note: By labeling this form “polite usage,” the authors encourage the false idea that the pronoun I is somehow “nicer” than me.

3. between me and you, “vernacular”

The authors found that “the oldest people studied and those with the most education” tended to use the standard form. Participants “intermediate in age and level of education [less than a Ph.D.] favored” the “polite” version, whereas “youth and the less educated” used “between me and you.”

The fact that “between you and me” was most common among the oldest participants could have something to do with the possibility that grammar was more effectively taught in the public schools in the past than it is now.

As for “youth and the less educated,” good for them. They may be erring socially by putting themselves first, but they are using the correct pronoun case.

Language evolves, including pronouns. I and me may eventually change places. Me is an object form, yet many speakers use the compound “Me + x” as a subject: “Me and the children went to the zoo on Sunday.”

The first person pronouns I and me may go the way of second person ye (subject form) and you (object form): first they changed places, and then one of them disappeared altogether.

Vuolo suggests that “between you and I” is far more common on the Web than “between you and me.” This may be true, but I wasn’t able to duplicate his search results.

I did search the three phrases in the Google Ngram Viewer and found that “between you and me” is the clear winner in books–and has been for the past two hundred years.

Time will tell. When persistent enough, nonstandard popular usage eventually makes its way into standard usage. For now, in this decade of the 21st century, “between you and I” is nonstandard usage.

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5 Responses to “Between You and I vs. Between You and Me”

  • Nancy R.

    Correct “standard” usage of “me” after a preposition might stand a chance if writers would consistently script it– especially writers of television sitcoms, dramas, commercials, and the like. This is where the young learn English in this century, rather than in school or the home.

  • David Knuttunen

    It seems probable to me that this is a mistake made by people who have been corrected from “me and him” as a subject to “he and I” so often that they have over-internalized the results (as it were). It may well become standard usage, in time (it occurs to me to wonder what percentage of language changes started out as simple, but common, mistakes). But I personally find it ugly and pointless, and I see no reason to do anything to encourage its adoption.

  • Jan Arzooman

    Sure, it may soon be acceptable to use “between you and I.” What a slippery slope. Soon people will be using the inside fork for their salads, too … and then it’s just steps from total anarchy and finding the Statue of Liberty buried on the beach.

  • venqax

    This is the big problem with activists like Vuolo: He says stuff. And because he is a sociology professor, impressionable people pay attention to him think he knows what he is talking about when it comes to language. Sociologist really have any business pronouncing on language, but linguistics “scholars” (e.g. Chomsky) are so much worse it’s hard to discourage them. Why can’t these people either get real jobs, say something about their actual subject, or just stop their pretentiousness and go to work for whatever ACORN became. Real underground malcontents should get angry that pampered academics encroach on their territory. The reason we should say between you and me is obvious to anyone not afflicted with the kind of stupidity uniquely attained by the overeducated.

  • Joe K

    Objects and subjects. That is how I try to ‘keep track’ of which to use when. (Did I say that correctly?) I enjoyed the Comments as much as I enjoyed the Post. Aside Note: I really enjoy reading documents prepared by our Director of Engineering. For an engineer, he must write in an unambiguous way for obvious reasons. i.e. avoiding disaster(s). 🙂

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