Stephen Fry telling off his guests

Here is Joachim van Gelder’s first “Testing Prescriptivism” blogpost:

Stephen Fry has hosted – with generous helpings of his usual charm and panache – the annual British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards ceremony for the past 11 years. During the 2014 edition of the show, he humourously commented on the acceptance speeches of David O. Russell and Jeff Pope, after they had just won the awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay, respectively.

As soon as David O. Russell had delivered a speech in which he complimented his actors, Stephen retook the stage and made the following correction: “David, it’s a writing award. I think what you meant was not ‘who it was a great privilege to work with’ but ‘with whom it was a great privilege to work’. Never mind.” Not much later, Jeff Pope suffered a similar reprimand after thanking his producer, who, Pope said, “brought Steve [Coogan] and I together.” Stephen immediately explained that it should be “brought Steve and me together” instead.

Stephen was, of course, joking – half-joking, at the very least. He is a pedant no more, after all. Still, did the phrases uttered by David O. Russell and Jeff Pope actually contain grammatical errors? Opinions are divided on the issue, and the answer you will get is likely to depend on who you ask.

Sticklers will say that the pronouns I, he, she, we, they, and who (and whoever and whosoever by extension) require a different form when they occur in object position. That is, Stephen Fry tells me, him, her, us, or them whom he likes. *He certainly doesn’t tell I. *Nor does he tell we. The phrases uttered by David O. Russell and Jeff Pope contain errors, sticklers will say, by the same token. The pronouns in their utterances do not occur in the subject position, but look as if they do, and must therefore be changed.

Linguists would probably argue that it is all up to the native speakers of the language. If many or most people feel that phrases such as the ones I have been discussing do not present an issue, then such phrases are, to state the obvious, acceptable, and should be considered as such. It is for the same reason that utterances like It’s me are acceptable and have actually become the norm, while sticklers may insist on It is I because the I/me element is a subject complement, which requires the nominative case, i.e., I.

What do you think? Does it simply come down to stylistic choices and personal preference? Or do the sticklers – and Stephen Fry in particular – have a point?

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One Response to Stephen Fry telling off his guests

  1. I would say that the ‘X and me’ problem is still alive and well and being corrected on a daily basis and taught in schools as incorrect. In speech, ‘X and me’ is probably used just as much as ‘X and I’, but people often query it themselves after saying it because we were constantly corrected growing up and since by friends. It’s a popular thing to correct because everyone is very conscious of the rule. Likewise with ‘whom’, but very few people would actually go to the extent of saying a convoluted sentence like ‘with whom it’s a great privilege to work’, certainly not in the spoken language and almost certainly not in the written word. ‘Whom’ is avoided like the plague by rewriting sentences to make it irrelevant. I left school in 1982 and even then, I don’t remember being taught the rule for when to use ‘whom’. Mind you, they seem to be teaching children more grammar rules nowadays than in my day; we were taught the basics then got down to using the language, not learning to recognise grammatical constructions.

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