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The article of Time magazine (September 13) titled, “America to Banks: We’re just not that into you” begins with the following lines:

“The number of Americans who have cut the cord with mainstream banking has risen by 821,000 households in just two years. One in 12 households or 8.3% are unbanked, while another roughly 20% are what researchers call "underbanked." We're ostensibly well into economic recovery, so why are more of us telling our banks, "It's not me, it's you?"

I guess the ending phrase, "It's not me, it’s you”” means “It’s not me (underbanked / unbanked Americans), but it’s you (banks) who are benefitted by recent economic recovery," but I’m not sure. What does “it” represent for?

Why does it end up in interrogative form? Is question mark necessary at the end of this phrase (It's not me, it's you?) ? If it is, isn’t it better to say “Why are more of us asking our banks, "It's not me, it's you?," instead of “Why are more of us telling our banks, “It’s not me, it's you?"?

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Kate answered most of your question, but regarding the question mark in “It's not me, it's you?”, the question mark is inside the quotes – although it shouldn't be, logically – because of Time slavishly kowtowing to the anomalous vagaries of American punctuation rules. See When should end punctuation go inside quotes?. –  jwpat7 Sep 17 '12 at 1:02
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In American English, the question mark is inside the quote when it is part of the quote. Compare I asked, "Do you think that I love punctuation?" with Did you hear me say, "I love punctuation"? –  kiamlaluno Sep 17 '12 at 3:26
    
General reference –  Gigili Sep 17 '12 at 3:45
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@kiamlaluno: You may find that your logical rule applies more in British English than American English. –  Henry Sep 17 '12 at 6:54
    
@Henry What I said is what I found in a book about punctuation in American English; it's not a book about British English. –  kiamlaluno Sep 17 '12 at 7:09

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Kate Gregory has outlined the answer, but perhaps more detail is necessary for non-native speakers to understand the underlying assumptions.

First, in the Time article the writer is using an extended metaphor sometimes referred to as a "literary conceit":

In literature, a conceit is an extended metaphor with a complex logic that governs a poetic passage or entire poem. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, a conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison.

The "more sophisticated understanding" we are being invited into is one involving standard, commonplace tropes from romantic breakups.

First, the title refers to the standard plain-truth version for ending a relationship that is usually given by a third-party to the person being jettisoned:

"He [or she] is just not that into you."

In other words, it's over. Get past your issues with the breakup and move on with the rest of your life. In the context of banking, banks are being told by the third party (Time) that consumers really don't care about them anymore.

Here's where Kate's answer enters the picture. The standard trope "It's not you, it's me" — used to absolve the other party in the relationship of blame as a way of pre-empting any desperate attempts to salvage it: "But I can change!", "We can work it out!", and so on. By taking responsibility for the breakup there is no possible comeback. The person being broken up with is left without recourse.

Now, we have to address the fact that this trope is inverted: "It's not me, it's you." That plays the trope for laughs, since instead of absolving the jettisoned party of responsibility, the person breaking up is saddled with all of it. In this case, the banks are being seen by consumers as bearing all the guilt for the relationship falling apart, and are (by refusing to use banking services) being told so by them.

By using such devices, the writer presents the information in a light, clever style that is not strictly suited to the bald representation of boring facts about banking, but which is no doubt much more readable for the same reasons.

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I didn't know "It's not you, it's me," is from the lyric of a song by Little Willies or George in Seinfeld. Urban Dictionary defines "It's not you, it's me," as “a great excuse for breaking up with someone while trying not to hurt their feelings. Famously used by George in Seinfeld, he gets upset when he found out someone used his line and claims he invented it.” However, I have still the question about the position of question mark at the ending. Shouldn’t it be “We're ostensibly well into economic recovery, so why are more of us telling our banks, "It's not me, it's you,” ?" –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 17 '12 at 2:55
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You're absolutely right. The question mark should be outside the quotes, but punctuation is not necessary inside the quotes: We're ostensibly well into economic recovery, so why are more of us telling our banks, "It's not me, it's you"? –  Robusto Sep 17 '12 at 3:18
    
@AdamRobinson: That is not true. Sentence-ending punctuation that must (in American English, and not in all cases) is limited to periods and commas, unless the punctuation is part of the quoted meterial. –  Robusto Sep 17 '12 at 11:49

The phrase "it's not you, it's me" is a cliche used when someone breaks up with another person; ends the romantic relationship. The article is saying that consumers are breaking up with (metaphorically) their banks. It asks "why are more of us breaking up with our banks?"

And turning it around, "it's not me, it's you" is a way of saying something mean while breaking up with someone. So breaking up with the bank in an impolite way.

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But the commercial reverses it. "It's not you, it's me" is a way of telling the other person that they're not at fault for the relationship ending. You're taking responsibility for it. The ad says that not only should we be breaking up with our banks, we should be telling them it's their fault. They messed things up (e.g., our retirement funds, the housing market, the global economy...). –  octern Sep 17 '12 at 0:59
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Actually, "it's not you, it's me" means "it really is you, but I can't be bothered listening to you trying to defend yourself". –  user16269 Sep 17 '12 at 2:12

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