Obama and the Grammar Police

While President Obama has long been lauded for his eloquent speech (see my post “Obama and Power of Words”), as well as his intellect and professionalism, he has also been slammed for his grammar. Obama’s most widely criticized “mistake” is doubtlessly his “misuse” of pronouns.

Like so many American English speakers, myself included, Obama often uses the first person singular subject pronoun “I” when the first person singular object pronoun “me” is prescribed. In recent NYT article, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman explain that “[f]or centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either “I” or “me” as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after “and.” Literature is full of examples” including Shakespeare and Lord Byron. The authors go on to elucidate that, “[i]t wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the language mavens began kvetching about “I” and “me.”” They attribute these 19th century grammatical prescriptions to the influence of Latin, “with its rigid treatment of subject and object pronouns”.

As I pointed out in a previous post (“Split Infinitives…”), the glorification of Latin grammar by English prescriptivists has caused other problems for English speakers. It is unfortunate enough that English continues to be written in the Roman alphabet, which is obviously unsuitable for a language with more than twice as many vowels as well as a few different consonants, so I have a prescription for those prescriptivists: stop trying to Latinize the English language and stop hassling English speakers – especially President Obama – about the “correctness” of their communication. Besides, no one in their right mind can argue that Obama should be worrying about his pronouns when the economy is in crisis, the health care and education systems are in shambles, and the environment is in peril.

As translators and editors, who enjoy the comforts of neat prescriptive and artificial grammatical rules, we too should be more sympathetic towards grammatical exceptions and variations, as well as language change more generally, as long as communication is effective, of course.