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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: March ::
A Slip of the Quill
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0350  Tuesday 2 March 1999.

From:           Ali Ahmad Al-Ghamdi <
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Date:           Monday, 01 Mar 1999 20:27:14 +0300
Subject:        A Slip of the Quill

Dear Colleagues,

Long time ago, Russell Baker wrote in the New York Times:

Joseph Nohavicka, in a letter to The New York Times, raised a vexing
philosophical question in defending the phrase "between you and I" on
ground that Shakespeare used it in The Merchant of Venice.
Grammatically, of course, Shakespeare was wrong. He should have written
"between you and me." In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare seems to
have slipped accidentally. My guess is that he was writing along
rapidly, may be at the of the day when he was tired, was wishing he'd
never come up with this Merchant of Venice idea and eager to get over to
the Mermaid Tavern for a beer with Jonson and Burbage.

All writers get sloppy after the first hours at the quill, the
typewriter or even the word processor. His editor should have tracked
him to the Mermaid to ask about the error. "Bill, do you really want
this line to read 'between you and I?' Or should I change it to 'you and
me'?"

From my experience with editors, I can imagine Shakespeare's getting
testy about being interrupted with this question during the happy hour.
"Of course I don't want 'between you and I,' dummy. It makes me sound
illiterate. Change it to 'you and me.' You ought to have enough sense to
fix things like that your self without bothering me about them. What am
I paying you for, anyhow?"

Possibly Shakespeare's editor had had enough abuse of this sort and
decided to teach the great man a lesson, letting the error slip by so
the whole London theater crowd would laugh at their golden boy's
grammatical ignorance.

My theory that Shakespeare simply nodded off on this one is based on its
context in the play. It comes in the text of a letter Shakespeare uses
to advance the plot swiftly getting bogged down in an expository scene.
There is no obvious artistic reason for writing the letter in sloppy
English.

This brings us to the deeper question raised by Nohavick's defense of
Shakespearean error. The question is embodied in a commonplace situation
almost all of us confront from time to time. It begins when we knock on
a door and someone inside asks, "Who's there?"

What is your answer?  If you are a stranger with a voice unknown to the
people inside, there is no problem. You say, "It's the meter reader," or
"It's Sir Joseph Porter, KCB" and are told either to come in or go take
a flying jump at the moon. If you are well known to the party within,
however, chances are you say, "It's me."

That's grammatically wrong. Good English, of course, invokes the law of
the predicate nominative, which calls for "It's I." Even better English,
which eschews contractions, would be, "It is I."

Good English or bad? In this trite situation almost all of us
instinctively choose the bad, and for sound reason. H.L. Mencken once
explained it by saying that anybody who replied, "It is I" after being
asked, "Who's there?" would never get through his door.

What Mencken was saying, and what 200 million "It's me" Americans
instinctively understand, is that slavish adherence to good English may
very well keep you standing outside doors you wish to open.

Speaking of Shakespeare, this is as true of the writing trades as it is
of getting into Mencken's house. The writer whose English is so
inflexibly correct that it never violates the laws is very likely a
writer who will not be published until he learns when to break the laws
painstakingly learned and dares to say, "In this case, wrong is better."

Sir Joseph Porter, remember, sang, "I thought so little they rewarded me
by making me the ruler of the Queen's navee." Whereupon his relatives
sang, "He thought so little they rewarded he by making him the ruler of
the Queen's navee."

Correct English demanded, "thought so little they rewarded him," and it
was absolutely dead wrong. Sometimes correct English is wrong and wrong
English is right. The governing word is "sometimes." Shakespeare's once
breaking a rule does not license everybody to break it forevermore,
especially when it was one he broke late in the day while dreaming of
the Mermaid Tavern.

Ali A. Al-Ghamdi
 

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