By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University
About 200 years ago, when Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray wrote their English grammar books, they didn’t know that it can’t be that straightforward and that language rules could be complicated. They introduced the Billy-and-me-went-to-the-store rule. This rule annoys us even today because what we are repeatedly taught is quite different from what this rule suggests.
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Languages Vary, and It’s OK
Lowth and Murray formulated the Billy-and-me-went-to-the store rule. This reads incorrect, as we know that we are supposed to say, “Billy and I went to the store.” The reason being me is not a subject. We have been repeatedly taught this in school. Yet, for many, this rule makes no sense. Lowth and Murray thought that, it was the way English should be, although it never has been, because that’s the way it would be in Latin. The Latin language is very fussy about subject pronouns in subject positions. But then this is a good thing about Latin, although it is not fussy about other things. But English is fussy about certain things and so on. Languages do differ from each other.
This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Billy and Me Went to the Store
Let’s take an example. Suppose if one wants to say Billy and Williams or me went to the store in French, one would say Guillaume et Moi (William and me) sommes elles au magasin. It would never be said as Guillaume et je (Billy and I) sommes au magasin. Just study French for 10 minutes and you will feel that this sentence is totally wrong. So now, “Billy and me went to the store” should be correct. The French are under no impression that their language is perfect and that it does not have any rules, or that their language is perfect. No one will hit you on the back of your head in France for using a sentence that is equivalent of “Billy and me went to the store.” But in English, for some reason, it is thought to be a major blunder.
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Them, They, Us, and We
But, to think of it, one would not be able to consistently observe the idea that a subject pronoun should be used in a subject position. The Billy-and-me-went-to-the-store rule is similar. Let’s take another example. Suppose someone asks, “Who did that?” and you are aware that two people on the other side of the room did that and you point toward them. When it is said, “Who did that?” you reply, “Them.” But them is not a subject form. So you can’t reply, “Them did that.” The right way to say would be, “They did that.” Also, you will never say, “They!” This is because it would look odd. And, if, instead of those two people, it were you and someone else, you won’t say, “We.” You are supposed to say, “Us.” However, you would not say, “Us did that.”
Again, suppose it is asked, “Who did it?” and it was you who had done it then you would say, “Me.” You will not say, “It was I.” If you say so, you would be like Hyacinth Bouquet from the British sitcom Keeping up appearances. She is expected to be funny. She would go and knock at someone’s door and say, “It is I.” But none of us would want to be like Hyacinth. We may enjoy watching her on DVD but in reality, we do not want to be like her.
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The Lowth and Murray Effect
Unlike Latin, things happen differently in English. Let’s consider children who have IQ levels as high as 850, are smart, and who happen to grow up in print-rich homes. During their growing up years, they would not spontaneously say, “Billy and I went to the store.” The smartest of them would say, “Billy and me went to the store” and that may result in a reprimand from a parent or a teacher. The reason is that howsoever good one may be while speaking the English language, they are going to say, “Billy and me went to the store” because that is the right English. The system works in that manner only. Something like Billy and I has to be taught. Billy and I is something that you have to be taught. And all this because of the two periwigged men who lived a very long time ago, and thought about creating rules for the English language!
These men worked hard under another illusion. And that illusion is that they thought change in language meant its deterioration. They were of the opinion that if English was moving toward a particular direction then something in it was falling away. Particularly so when it seemed that it had already fallen away from those wonderful case endings of Latin and Greek languages. Even today, people sometimes feel that things are melting away. But, thanks to the scientific study of languages, we have seen that language change is a natural process. And, languages also gain certain features and elements while losing some.
Common Questions about the Billy-and-Me-Went-to-the Store Rule
When used properly, both of these are correct. Billy and me is the object form and is used as the object of a proposition. On the other hand, Billy and I is the nominative form used as the subject of a sentence or clause.
The pronoun I can be used when the person who is speaking does the action, whether alone or with someone else. The pronoun me can be used when the person who is speaking receives the action of the verb.
Since the speaker is performing the action and is the subject of the sentence, the subject version of the pronoun can be used. When the speaker is the object, you use me. If you have already mentioned yourself in a sentence then you can use myself to refer back to you.