Enjoying an otherwise well-written article in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph, I was jolted by this sentence.
“Marriage will bond Susanna and I closer together.”
True, it’s a classic example of what, in linguistics, is referred to as hypercorrection – and I’m quite used to both seeing and hearing similar lapses – yet it never ceases to puzzle me why sub-editors employed by prestigious newspapers should stumble over basic grammar. But first, what is hypercorrection? While The OxfordEnglish Dictionary defines the adjective hypercorrect as “falsely modelled on an apparently analogous prestige form”, the writer Kingsley Amis was more direct, branding hypercorrection “an indulged desire to be posher than posh”. In other words, the perpetrators imagine that such hypercorrect usage is formal and seem to want to appear sophisticated, but their desire is inevitably thwarted by their failure to have grasped the principle in question. Put it another way, hypercorrection can be seen as pseudo-refined usage.
Such usage is not limited to English, nor is it confined solely to grammar, but I will concentrate here on a classic misinterpretation of English syntax involving an incorrect case of the personal pronoun I. In the Daily Telegraph example, this pronoun is in the subjective case, but it’s not the subject, the subject of this sentence being ‘marriage”. What is needed here is the objective (or accusative) case me – simply because the phrase “Susanna and me” functions as the object.
Marriage will bond Susanna and me closer together.
After all, what native speaker would write (or say): “Marriage will bond I and Susanna closer together”? Or “between I and you?” Yet reverse the order of the pronouns, and we often get the hypercorrect “between you and I”. If, however, we changed the voice of the Daily Telegraph sentence from active to passive, the phrase “Susanna and I” would become the subject, which is why the subjective case of the pronoun I would be perfectly legitimate there.
Susanna and I will be bonded closer together by marriage.
Let me offer you a brief grammatical summary. Like nouns, most pronouns in English have only two cases: common(somebody) and genitive(somebody’s). However, six pronouns have three cases: subjective(I), objective/ accusative(me) and genitive(my).
A few further examples of hypercorrection with the personal pronoun I follow; I have many more on my file.
“There are 10 years between Ruth and I [me] …” (The Sunday Times)
“Two of the children live with my wife and I [me].” (The Independent)
“To you or I [me], it sounds like the ultimate indulgence.” (The Daily Telegraph)
“My children were dealt with at home by Norma and I [me].” (A former British Prime Minister quoted in The Guardian)
Hypercorrection with I is so common that I’ve penned this short rhyme to alert readers to this trap.