view_column Drunken Disorder

by James Lyle

Published in Issue No. 66 ~ November, 2002

English grammar, some would say, is a sober matter. That this is not true was demonstrated to Radical Grammarian once again by the following sentence from a recent article in Slate.

“Fortunately, this was a voyage of discovery that Slate was willing to fund, leaving me in the prelapsarian position of having mine and my friends’ inebriation underwritten by Microsoft.”

There is much here to excite the imagination: the attractive notion of having one’s inebriation funded; the rather regrettable choice of the word prelapsarian. But what most caught the Radical Grammarian’s attention was the phrase mine and my friends’. Something is clearly wrong with that construction. What is not at all clear is what should have been written instead.

When we want to talk about something that is owned by or associated with more than one person, English gives us a couple of options. We can go around declining all the owners for possessive (or “genitive”) case, like this: Monica’s and Chandler’s inebriation. But so much more convenient and natural is to use that handy little `s to mark possession by the entire phrase: [Monica and Chandler]‘s inebriation. It’s so naturally English to do this that even the grammar checking software in RG’s word processor, ordinarily quite conservative, feels safe in recommending it.

Ah, but what happens when one of the possessors is a personal pronoun, that is, what if we need to refer not to the inebriation of Chandler and Monica, but of my friends and me? Surely the 1000-plus years of evolution of English grammar have given us a standard way to talk about such common situations. But just try it: my friends and my inebriation? I and my friends’ inebriation? My friends and mine inebriation? Nothing sounds quite right.

If you’re anything like Radical Grammarian, you’re getting a little worried at this point because you’ve realized that collective inebriation is something you need to refer to quite frequently. Grammar isn’t supposed to be like this. Standard English is supposed to come at you clear-eyed, with a steady gait, not lurching about like a salesman on his fifth Manhattan. But this construction is grammar at its drunk and disorderliest, a stumbling gatecrasher at our little linguistic tea party.

Is there any hope of subduing this brute? This seems the point at which some really solid usage advice would be helpful, so perhaps we can turn to the popular prescriptive literature on usage. Unfortunately, most usage guides, with characteristic timidity, don’t attempt to deal with this construction at all. And that is the true failing of many works purporting to give advice on grammar–they only tackle the easy questions, and are completely unhelpful just when we find ourselves most in need.

One source that has discussed this construction is the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, a wonderful new volume of descriptive grammar by the linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoff Pullum, which, at a slim1860 pages, is rapidly becoming RG’s favorite book. Their survey of people’s preferences and intuitions is revealing: nobody knows how to say this thing! Nobody, for instance, likes using the subjective (or “nominative”) case with a first person pronoun, as in *I and my partner’s letters, but to some ears it gets better with third person: they and their partners’ letters. Meanwhile the accusative me and Kim’s letters is “clearly non-standard”. One can always use the possessive form for both pronouns in cases like your and my letters, but this often fails to clearly imply joint ownership: when hearing about his and her children, for example, one tends to think that not all the children in question have the same parents.

What, then, to do, assuming we refuse to take the coward’s way out and simply sidle away whenever this construction lurches into view? One strategy is to do as our Slate correspondent has done: let the drunken lout crash the gates by going with whatever version sounds most natural at the time. Allow him to briefly be the life of the party, and hope that nothing gets broken. If you do choose this strategy, and anyone objects to your particular choice for the construction, RG recommends pinning them with your most evil glare and asking, “How do you say it?”

If that strategy seems unsatisfying, an alternative is to let RG step in with a pot of strong black coffee, and attempt to deduce the “best” usage from the internal logic of English syntax. The problem comes down to this: which of the three available pronoun cases, subjective (e.g. I, they), accusative (me, them), or possessive (my, their), should be used in a case like [X and Y]’s inebriation? We can rule out the possessive immediately: that case is only indicated once, by the `s on the end of the whole phrase, as we see when X and Y are full nouns: [Pat and Kim]‘s letters. And we can also rule out the subjective: as any popular grammar guide will forcefully insist, that case is reserved for the subject of a clause. So we are left with only one choice: the “clearly non-standard” accusative. So it’s to be me and Kim’s letters, or, if you’re feeling rather more courageous, Kim and me’s letters.

Of course, since everyone seems to be quite conflicted about what sounds most natural, taking this (or any other) approach consistently is bound to displease someone. So sin boldly: go ahead and say me and Monica’s drinks if the context calls for it. Meet that raised eyebrow or derisive laughter with defiance. You can always offer the above explanation, if you find yourself able to remember it. Or you can just blame it on your friends and you’s inebriation.

account_box More About

After studying mathematics, literature, and linguistics, James Lyle earned a PhD from the University of Washington and taught English grammar and linguistics. Since then, he has gone to work on natural language processing technology for a largish software firm. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two cats.