Amol Rajan, the BBC’s busy media editor and Today programme presenter, has an engaging way of admitting some of his failings. On air, he openly discussed having panic attacks before his first Today shift. Of an antimonarchist piece he wrote for the Independent in 2012, he said: “I wrote things that were rude and immature and I look back on them now with real embarrassment.”
On Twitter, he said: “Most people say I talk too fast on the radio.” Then, before Christmas, his grammar came in for criticism when he tweeted: “Me and Nick Robinson are your co-pilots on Today this morning.”
“And I,” the chairman of Llandudno Jazz Festival suggested mildly in reply. “Very poor grammar!” expostulated another tweeter. “You wouldn’t say ‘Me is’.” “Am a big fan Amol,” tweeted someone called Dave, “but by God people get tetchy about grammar.”
So they do. Everyone thinks their own usage is correct. They go by whether a construction “sounds” right – really an appeal to the implicit grammar they possess as native language speakers. The trouble comes when not all agree. It’s a perfect example of what Alexander Pope was getting at in An Essay on Criticism, the work of a young man, not an old pedant, published on his 23rd birthday: “’Tis with our judgments as our watches, none/Go just alike, yet each believes his own.”
But which is worse: to say, like Richmal Crompton’s William Brown, “Me and Ginger counted out the loot”, or to employ the hypercorrect genteelism of “The Queen waved to my husband and I”? Both are wrong, but what should subeditors do with such solecisms in copy, or, more problematically, in quotes?
I had assumed that the Me and Ginger construction would have been educated out of anyone who went on to university. Amol Rajan was brought up in Tooting, and to me his voice sounds exactly like Gary Bellamy in the radio comedy phone-in parody Down the Line. Then he went to Cambridge, expanding his vocabulary and ideas.
But it’s easy enough to find other graduates employing the Me and Ginger construction on Twitter, which does, after all, preserve an informal register. “Me and J are now on total down time for some much needed rest,” tweeted one possessor of a PhD. By contrast, James Haskell, the former England rugby player, wrote in The Times: “It also coincided with my dad, brother and I supporting Wasps.” Might the subeditor have suggested making it me?
The Me and Ginger problem is a typically neuralgic symptom of language change. It features one of the dwindling set of pronouns that display different forms in the oblique cases. The grammar is easier to resolve than the usage. Knock on a door and the answering query is: “Who is it?” What do you reply? Probably: “It’s only me.” It would sound stilted to say “It is only I”, even though the verb to be notionally takes a complement. They manage things differently in other languages. The French do not say: “L’état c’est je.”
Or take that tricky word whom. It was reckoned extinct in the mouths of English speakers by Kingsley Amis, and he died in 1995. The difficulty in deploying it is illustrated by an example he chose in his posthumous The King’s English (1997). He thought that formality required whom instead of who in this sentence: “I was then presented to His Royal Highness, who I felt was known to me already.” But whom would be wrong. Take out the parenthetical “I felt” and it is obviously correct as “who was known”, with who as the subject of the clause. The same would go for “who I thought was growing stout”.
Old Kingers did not have to grapple with they, them, theirs as pronouns adopted to avoid specifying the sex of the person referred to. He must have known that the ploy was already in use, as when a husband arrived home late and told his wife: “I was held up by someone wanting me to see their etchings.” Not her etchings.
Indeed, they as a non-sex-specific singular pronoun and their as the corresponding adjective have been used for hundreds of years. “If a person is born of a very sensible, gloomy temper,” wrote Lord Chesterfield in a letter of 1759, “they cannot help it.”
But now, unyielding pressure is for the obliteration of he, him as default pronouns and their replacement by they, them. We went through a transformation just as strange when the plural pronoun you supplanted the singular thou, out of politeness. The funny thing is that one still has only to go 100 miles or so from London, to the north Midlands, to find thou (“Th’art daft”) in rude health orally. Yet it is never heard in neutral use in broadcasting, only in distanced artistic use in drama or poetry.
Pronouns are not the only parts of speech causing trouble through language-change. The modal verbs may and might have been in crisis for two generations. I often see may being used where I could only use might. “If it had started to rain, the fire may have been put out” suggests that the fire possibly was extinguished. If it wasn’t, may has to be might.
But what is an editor to do with ungrammatical quotes? Deon Cross, the Rugby League player, was quoted in the Sunday People: “If I knew then, as a scholarship player, what I know now, I may have got there sooner.” But Cross didn’t know then what he does now, and the conventional way of expressing it would be “if I’d known” and “I might have”. Yet to change it would misrepresent the speaker’s idiom. It might even delude future historians of language who took it for a sample of demotic speech.
By the way, a mechanical subeditor might have “corrected” Pope’s couplet by changing “none/Go just alike” to “none/Goes just alike”. That would defy sense and historical usage, but it’s the sort of thing that happens in newspapers.
The writer is an assistant editor of The Daily Telegraph.