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This question may be moderated as unanswerable, but I am interested in opinions.

Take this scenario: Most people I know will improperly correct "The ball belongs to John and me." to "The ball belongs to John and I." The simple rule I was taught is that you remove the other party and see if the sentence makes sense. Would you say "The ball belongs to I?" No. "The ball belongs to me." Therefore, the correct wording is "The ball belongs to John and me."

If I am giving a talk to a group of people and use the correct "John and me" construct, I will cause a good portion of my audience to lose focus as they mentally (improperly) correct my grammar.

My question is this: If the purpose of language is communication, what do you do when proper grammar is a barrier to effective communication?

Do you use the proper construct, causing over half the room to stop paying attention; do you use the improper construct that most accept and lose the respect of the more educated people in the room; or do you avoid the situation altogether by wording your thoughts such that you don't need to use the distracting construct at all?

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Option number 3 will save you a lot of trouble. –  Irene Nov 12 '11 at 6:25
No one I know would be distracted by hearing "The ball belongs to John and me". They'd be more distracted by "The ball belongs to John and I". In fact, the people who tend to be distracted by language issues would overwhelmingly be distracted by the latter. (The hypercorrection of "me" to "I" seems to be an American thing, AFAICT.) –  ShreevatsaR Nov 12 '11 at 12:34
The "and I" hypercorrection is very common in Australia as well... The majority of people I know, even the very well educated, make that error because they have a misconception that it is always incorrect to use the "John and me" construction. –  bracho monacho Nov 12 '11 at 13:33
@ShreevatsaR: I’ve heard that hypercorrection often enough in the UK as well, I’m afraid. I think its prevalence greatly depends on what kind of circles you move in. –  PLL Nov 12 '11 at 14:17
@BarrieEngland: "it should be regarded as a variant Standard English form" means that it's not the more common Standard English form. (You can look at a corpus.) I had never seen "between you and I" until about four years ago, and I still haven't seen it much. If you look at Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage it has more than one page discussing "between you and I", and it points out that it's unheard of for about 150 years from the early 18th century, and that Shakespeare almost invariably used the objective case. –  ShreevatsaR Nov 12 '11 at 17:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You should use whatever language is best to communicate with your intended audience, whilst still keeping to standards you're comfortable with.

  • If it's a formal setting, use formal language.
  • If you're talking in the pub, you can use slang.
  • If the audience are domain experts, use some technical and jargon words.
  • If you're meeting the queen, use super-formal language.

Now, I wouldn't recommend talking in street slang with gang members as this probably would be incongruous, but you would still tailor your speech to be understood.

If saying "and I" is going to cause such a huge barrier to understanding, by all means avoid it. But I have trouble believing that both (a) most people would use the incorrect form, and (b) it would cause over half the room to stop paying attention.

If that's really the case, then for your sanity, for the respect of the more educated people and to avoid losing the majority, use some other wording instead.

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An excellent answer. This is my thinking as well. –  Brien Malone Nov 14 '11 at 16:01

The case in point is 'proper usage'. As the authors of 'The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language' write, persuasively if controversially, I in coordination with a noun or another pronoun in object position:

'. . . is used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community; it should be regarded as a variant Standard English form.

They add in a 'Prescriptive grammar note':

Those who condemn it simply assume that the case of a pronoun in a coordination must be the same as when it stands alone. Actual usage is in conflict with this assumption.

On the broader point, language is used for communication, but it does other things as well. It helps us tell the world a little bit about ourselves, for example, and in a dialogue it establishes and reflects the power relationship between the participants. It is misleading to speak of 'proper grammar' because, to express the point in admittedly extreme terms, every utterance is grammatical one way or another, if we exclude slips of the tongue and finger. Whatever dialect we speak, we speak it according to grammatically consistent rules. That is not to say we shouldn't try to match our language to the situation in which we are using it, very much as Hugo suggests. In many cases, that variety will be Standard English and, to get there in the end, it is the use of Standard English that I suspect the OP has in mind. That means saying things like I don't have any rather than I ain't got none and He did it well rather than He done it well. The take-home message, however, is that those non-standard forms are just as grammatical as the standard ones.

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Do you have some evidence for your 'broader point'? In my experience, people who use "He done it well" will at other times say "He did it well" or "He did it good" according to how they feel at the time. Presumably there are good reasons for each particular use, but the rules are not visible or open to discussion; and that is precisely why such forms are not grammatical. –  TimLymington Nov 12 '11 at 19:36
@TimLymington: From ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’ by Andrew Radford and others: 'Non-standard varieties . . . are often considered to be lazy, ungrammatical forms which betray a lack of both educational training and discipline in learning. Linguists strongly disagree with this view. The study of language use has shown not only that non-standard varieties exhibit grammatical regularity and consistent pronunciation patterns in the same way that standard varieties do, but also that a majority of people will use non-standard features at least some of the time in their speech.' –  Barrie England Nov 12 '11 at 20:30
@TimLymington:For more on this, see Peter Trudgill’s paper here: phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/SEtrudgill.htm. Under the heading ‘Grammatical idiosyncrasies of Standard English’, he lists some of the ways in which Standard English differs from non-standard varieties. –  Barrie England Nov 12 '11 at 20:41
Barrie:Thanks for those. I reserve judgement on Radford, but Trudgill seems to support my point, that grammatical refers precisely to demonstrable, repeatable rules. (I find 'Standard' too ambiguous to be helpful here: but for what it's worth I agree that 'Standard English' is neither universal nor superior.) –  TimLymington Nov 12 '11 at 21:50
@TimLymington: "Grammatical" does indeed refer precisely to demonstrable, repreatable rules; but the demonstrable repeatable rules of the prestige variety ("Standard English") are not the only possible, or actual, set of such rules. –  Colin Fine Nov 14 '11 at 11:02

We have all met situations where the correct word will distract your audience: double entendres are more common than your example (as when Johnson, talking about an actress, pronounced weightily "She is fundamentally sensible", and when his audience sniggered, corrected it to "She has a bottom of good sense.") The best solution is to make your talk so interesting that the audience is concentrating on the meaning not the words (or else make it shorter). Failing that, you can check through your notes in advance and edit out such distractions: or look the audience in the eye and brazen it out: or insert a brief explanation. But please note that this is advice about public speaking (since you say you are giving a talk), not about use of English. If you are going to avoid the proper construction just because you think some of your audience will lose concentration, you may as well give up using English to communicate (and, incidentally, you may be insulting your audience; I personally have never encountered a group who would be confused in this way).

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"But please note that this is advice about public speaking (since you say you are giving a talk), not about use of English." Public speaking in English is use of English... "you may as well give up using English to communicate" –  Brien Malone Nov 14 '11 at 16:10
"If you are going to avoid the proper construction just because you think some of your audience will lose concentration, you may as well give up using English to communicate..." Pithy answers aren't helpful. The key to good communication is knowing your audience. American audiences hypercorrect this specific example all the time. After your fantastic contribution in the comments above, I was expecting more here. –  Brien Malone Nov 14 '11 at 16:16
@Brien: the point is that this site is about English. If you wanted to know the best way to keep the audience's attention, this is the wrong forum. –  TimLymington Nov 15 '11 at 22:05

The best option in this case, clearly, is the third one.

However, sometimes there is no different, natural wording, and other times you can't come up with one on the spot. In such cases, I generally stick to what I know to be correct grammar. Of course, in certain social situations I screw up on purpose (with friends) as part of our grouptalk, but probably not in "formal" settings as in the example. I wouldn't want to "lose the respect of the more educated people in the room." Maybe that's snobby? :D

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