Her and me are on the way

Recently a friend and I were discussing what’s known in some circles as “substandard English.”

To be specific: Her and me were having a little conversation about “her and me.”

My friend confessed to thinking poorly of native speakers who habitually violate rules of grammar. One of the most grating errors for her was the use objective pronouns as the subjects of a sentence (For example, “Him and me are having an argument.”) My friend felt badly about her reaction, but said that she couldn’t control it, even with transgressors she thought well of otherwise.

Her-and-meI commiserated. A sentence such as “Him and me went to the mall” has a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard quality to my ear. But while I agreed that this particular usage was lamentable, I predicted that it would become acceptable English within our lifetimes.

If a language is alive and well, changes are inevitable. (Latin’s not evolving much these days.) But that doesn’t mean that all changes come easily.

On the one hand, changes that are useful, such as words to describe technological developments, will be quickly absorbed. They don’t sound wrong, they just sound new.

But changes that aren’t useful, such as the use of “her and me” as paired sentence subjects, will meet resistance from everyone for whom they sound incorrect.

Curiously, speakers who would say “him and me ate breakfast” would never say “me ate breakfast” or “him ate breakfast.” Apparently using a single objective pronoun as a subject still sounds improper even to the language barbarians among us.

That’s why, on October 7, while scanning a brief item in the “On Campus” section of the Wisconsin State Journal, I was stunned to encounter the following passage:

Her and others in the Hmong community criticized the university…

and worse, because it seemed a further degradation:

Her is a Madison-based advocate…

I choked on my coffee. If this was acceptable to my local newspaper, then my prediction was fulfilled and my lifetime was going to be a lot shorter than I’d thought.

Then, on my way to the depths of despair, I noticed that the offending sentence referred to a man named Peng Her. Relief was immediate. Not yet, I thought. Not yet.

Still, it’s only a matter of time.

Lamenting the loss of déjà vu

My local newspaper carried this dispiriting item today:

“For Kirsten Tomlinson, so much of the 2012 prep softball season must have felt like deja vu. Poynette’s senior pitcher helped the Pumas repeat as Northern Capitol Conference champions.”

I’m not unhappy for Ms. Tomlinson, who I’m sure deserves the honor. I’m unhappy for the loss of a sublimely useful term and the concept behind it.

You see, Ms. Tomlinson’s second consecutive award did not create “the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time.”

No, the young athlete’s worthy achievement was a repeat, a second memorable occurrence. In other words, it was not déjà vu at all.

“Déjà vu” is one of those rare French imports (from the early 1900s) that we in the U.S. have accepted enthusiastically. 1960s-era Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is widely given credit for declaring that teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris’s repeated feat of hitting back-to-back home runs was a case of “déjà vu all over again”.

Since then, we’ve steadily been losing our original sense of déjà vu.

I’m not a usage nanny (although I do admit to some strong prejudices). In this case, however, I find it sad that, through verbal sloppiness, we seem to be throwing away a perfectly good term. One whose uniqueness is acknowledgment of an odd existential pleasure.

So if “déjà vu” is going to be a synonym for “been there, seen that,” what are we going to call that delightful shiver of false recognition that comes from, say, walking into a strange room and feeling that, by means of some impossible cosmic twist, we’re returning to a place we once knew well?