Between You and I: Hypercorrection or Sign of Things to Come?

Among purists it would be hard to find a construction more grating on the ear than the use of the nominative case (used for the subjects of a sentence) where the objective case (used, appropriately, for the direct or indirect object) should be. Hearing phrases like, “Just between you and I” and “Give it to your father and I” instead of “Just between you and me” and “Give it to your father and me” can set your teeth on edge. Here are just a couple of examples from social media:

  • The best type of fireworks Are the ones between you and I
  • “Get you some” I yelled to the left lane cruisers. But between you and I, I don’t even know what that means.
  • The difference between you and I: When I say something my actions back it up.

This usage violates an apparent rule of grammar: the object of a preposition is in the object case, a rule that can be stated as Prepositional Phrase (PP) = Preposition (P) + Noun Phrase in the objective case (NP (obj)), or PP = P + NP(obj) for short.

This is not that surprising or complicated a rule. PP = P + NP(obj) is a fairly common occurrence, visible all the time:

  • for John
  • with trombones
  • to her
  • after me

In all these cases, the preposition is followed by a noun or a pronoun in the objective case. Granted, with most nouns, the objective case is indistinguishable from the nominal/subject case (John, trombones) but for first- and third-person pronouns, the case difference can be seen clearly: I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, they/them.

Logically, the presence of more than one object of a preposition should not change application of this rule. Combining for John and for me should yield for John and me.But that doesn’t seem to be happening. People say things like “Can you do this for John and I?” and “Just give it to John and I” all the time, in defiance of the grammatical logic that should govern these cases. So what on earth is going on? Let’s take a look.


It is widely assumed by many observers that these constructions could all be chalked up to a hypercorrection that has been apparent in English for a while. In response to schoolchildren saying things like, “Me and Bob are going to the movies,” school teachers would insist: “Bob and I…” From that repeated correction, it seems, an entire generation grew up reluctant to say “and me” and said “and I” regardless of whether it fit grammatically. As a result, there seemed to be the following amendment to our rule PP = P + NP(obj), such that when a prepositional phrase is followed by the conjunction and and the first person singular pronoun I, the pronoun remains in the nominative case. Thus:

  • P+ NP(obj)
    for Bob
  • P + PRON(1st person singular)(obj)
    + for me
  • P + NP(acc) + CONJ + PRON(1s)(nom)
    = for Bob and I

As idiosyncratic as it would be to have a rule of English that said, “Whenever the pronoun is used after a preposition with and, it remains in the nominative”, that would at least be something that could be accounted for by a hypercorrection. But is this solely the result of hypercorrection, or might there be other factors at work?


The conventional wisdom is that this hypercorrection is facilitated by the distance between the preposition and the second element of the pair. That is, by the time the speaker gets to the preposition after the and the pronoun’s influence has been forgotten. This is not an uncommon phenomenon and is seen all the time in sentences like:

The increasing instances of obnoxious, increasingly vocal, and vitriolic racial bigotry is a serious problem.

In cases like these, the verb phrase should be are a serious problem since instances is the subject of the sentence, not bigotry. However, due to the distance between the verb and its subject, errors like this are frequently made. In fact, in the sentence above, the subject and verb are so far apart that the grammar check of my Microsoft Word has failed to notice anything’s amiss. One could argue that phrases like for Bob and I are the result of a similar phenomenon.

However, if this were the case, driven by a simple hypercorrection, then it should apply only to the use of the second element of such a construction, not the element with immediate proximity to the governing preposition. That is, people know better than to say Give the book to I or I really love she, and as a result they only use the nominative at the end of phrases like for Bob and I because of the influence of the hypercorrection and the distance between preposition and object of the preposition.

But then how does one account for constructions like the following (culled from online sources and student papers):

  • My dad got tickets to the premiere of the new Star Wars tickets for he and I! Early birthday gift!!
  • Please stop asking what happened out of respect for she and I. Just know it’s over.
  • Ask not for whom it tolls. It tolls for he and she.
  • Nothing’s gonna change not for we and you.
  • My friend jumps too. It is breathtaking how fearlessly — almost recklessly — she throws herself between he and I.
  • Indy wrestling was good tonight. Really good. Onto White River Wrestling tomorrow vs @twitterhandle for he and I’s second battle!
  • He promised the leader of the cult he and Rosemary’s baby in order to help his own acting career.

It is difficult to imagine even these speakers forming phrases like I thought this was for he and Nothing’s gonna change for we, and He promised the leader of the cult he baby. And yet, the proximity to the governing pronoun here does not seem to have done its work. Proximity and distance cannot be the only factors behind this mystery. Something other than simple hypercorrection is at work here and the use of the nominative case is not just a straightforward function of distance.

An Impenetrable Combination

The one thing that all of these examples have is the presence of the coordinating conjunction and. In all the instances where the nominative case is found rather than the objective case the object of the preposition has been a compound object of two noun phrases joined by and. The presence of the and in all of these examples has created a coordination phrase, a phrase consisting of one or more conjuncts and a coordinator (and, or, and but, in English). Thus, Hell or High Water, Peace and Friendship, and Bob and I are all coordination phrases. One reason for the phenomenon of phrases like for Bob and I may be the “impermeability” of the elements inside a coordination phrase. [1]

This is certainly the case with the last example he and Rosemary’s baby, which is compounded by the fact that English syntax has “no graceful genitive for a coordination phrase containing pronouns.”[2] Indeed, different speakers have different perceptions of the “rightness” of a number of different options to solve this problem. Options like This is my wife’s and my house, This my wife and I’s house, this is my and my wife’s house, are all perceived by different speakers as having varying degrees of correctness, with many speakers not being sure which construction is the “correct” one. (The safe option — This is the house of my wife and me — sounds stilted.)

What seems to be the case, then, is that and creates a particular kind of coordination phrase that is always in the nominative case. The coordination phrase with and is impervious to the syntactic demands of the sentence constituents around it:

  • My dad got tickets to the premiere of the new Star Wars tickets for {he and I}! Early birthday gift!!
  • Please stop asking what happened out of respect for {she and I}. Just know it’s over.
  • Ask not for whom it tolls. It tolls for {he and she}.
  • Nothing’s gonna change not for {we and you}

Although these constructions seem unaffected by the demands of the governing prepositions, it does appear that the entire construction can be inflected, as these are with the possessive marker ’s:

  • Indy wrestling was good tonight. Really good. Onto White River Wrestling tomorrow vs @twitterhandle for {he and I}’s second battle!
  • He promised the leader of the cult {he and Rosemary}’s baby in order to help his own acting career.

A New Rule

Because the only words that are still marked for case in English are pronouns, it is difficult to know whether this is happening with combination phrases involving all kinds of noun phrases or just those involving pronouns. That is, it is easy to tell that the sentence Give it to he and I contains a coordination phrase in which both elements (he and I) are in the nominative case, but what about a phrase like Give it to mom and I or Give it to mom and dad? Are mom and dad in the proceeding illustrations in the nominative case or the objective, and how could we tell? It would be a curious thing if this phenomenon were restricted to pronouns only, but absent any other indication of case, all we can claim at this point is that this phenomenon is happening with phrases involving pronouns.

So, if we were to come up with a rule to describe this, it might be something like this: for a prepositional phrase, in which the object of the preposition is a coordination phrase involving at least one personal pronoun, the two elements are combined into one indivisible construction in the nominative case. Or:

  • P + NP(obj) + CONJ + PRON(obj) → P + {NP(nom) + CONJ + PRON(nom)}

The joining together of the separate objective case objects of the preposition into one indivisible nominative case coordination phrase might be a function of what Chomsky identifies as the simplest operation of language: the “Merge” function — taking objects X and Y and forming a new object Z. [3] If we look at the coordination phrase in this way, in our examples X and Y are no longer two elements, but are merged into one. The presence of the coordinating conjunction creates a merged element, no longer divisible syntactically, and in the nominative case, impervious to the demands of the governing prepositions.

A Mysterious Case

But why should this merged construction be in the nominative case as opposed to the objective? What rule could account for taking a construction that is in the objective when it’s on its own (e.g., for me), logically in the objective (i.e., the object of a preposition is in the objective case) and turn it into the nominative in this merged phrase? This seems even stranger given that there is some evidence to argue that, in a number of contexts, pronouns default toward the objective case: [4]

  • Me and him are gonna rumble tonight. (coordinated subjects)
  • A: I don’t like this. B: Me neither. (certain ellipsis contexts)
  • A: Who wants to try this game? B: Me! (bare replies to questions)
  • We can’t eat caviar and him eat beans. (gapping context)
  • The real me is finally emerging. (modified pronoun standing in for “I”)

Here, we see the use of objective case pronouns in a number of cases in which the nominative case could be used:

  • He and are gonna rumble tonight.
  • A: I don’t like this. B: don’t either.
  • A: Who wants to try this game? B: do!
  • We can’t eat caviar while he eats beans.
  • am finally emerging.

But it doesn’t seem that the nominative case must be used — there are objective and nominative variants that can be used more or less interchangeably. With this evidence, it has been argued that the default case for English is the accusative/objective case and that “nominative forms are only possible for pronouns that are maximally close to [a finite tense verb].” What this means is that it is the nominative case on which there are special rules; the nominative case is “marked” and the objective is the default. [5]

This makes it all the stranger that for you and for me — constructions in the syntactically appropriate and default objective case, should shift to the nominative when combined into our merged set. They are not any closer to a finite tensed verb, that is, they are not in the place of the subject, but somehow, these pronouns are being rendered by the merge function into the nominative.

One possible reason is that there is a kind of logic at work here. Ever since the time of pioneering linguist Ferdinande de Saussure, it has been understood that analogy is at the heart of linguistic creativity. It may be that they hypercorrection using the nominative case where the objective is normally used has kindled an analogy to the use of the accusative case where the nominative is normally used (e.g., “Me and him are gonna rumble” instead of “He and I…”). Perhaps speakers are concluding that if accusative constructions are permissible in sentence heading contexts, then nominative constructions are permissible as the object of prepositions. A linguistic case of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

It appears, then, much to my personal chagrin and that of many, that phrases like Just between you and I and Give it to he and I cannot be deemed “ungrammatical,” as much as they might be grating to some of us.

We are in a time of great linguistic flux. Language is constantly changing, but we seem to inhabit a time when not only is the language changing, but the appeal of a universal standard is also changing (or being lost altogether). The conflict between those who find these statements ungrammatical and those who do not seems to be a question of how many constituent parts a given sentences is parsed into. Some speakers see she and I as consisting of three parts: two pronouns and a coordinating conjunction; others, one: a nominative coordination phrase. Those who analyze the sentence in the latter fashion will not subject the members of that coordination phrase to the syntactic demands of the parts of speech surrounding the phrase. Regardless, then, of whether the phrase is preceded by a preposition or a transitive verb, the coordinating phrase will retain the nominative case in the speech of that group.

Given the way that language changes and grows, it is clear that before long those speakers who persist in saying, Just between you and me and This is really bad news for him and her will be the ones perceived to be speaking ungrammatically. If you are one of those speakers as well, brace yourself; the derision we direct at others will one day be coming for you and I.


[1] Steven Pinker, personal communication, December 18, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Noam Chomsky. What Kind of Creatures Are We? Columbia Themes in Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, 16–7.

[4] Thomas McFadden, “Default case and the status of compound categories in Distributed Morphology,” 10.

[5] Ibid.