Ask us Democrats
September 6, 2022 1:37 AM   Subscribe

Hey! In her essay "Semantic drift" Lionel Shriver writes: "I long ago developed the habit of mentally correcting other people’s grammatical errors, and sometimes these chiding reproofs escape my lips (“You mean ‘Ask us Democrats’ ”). Marking up casual conversation with a red pencil doesn’t make me popular, and I should learn to control myself." I can't think of what the original error would have been, can anyone help? (Best guess is "Ask we, Democrats", but I'm pretty sure that's not a mistake many people would make...)
posted by Skyanth to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think the original error was 'Ask we Democrats' - I can't think what else it might have been and subject/object confusion is pretty common.
posted by aussie_powerlifter at 1:51 AM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Someone alleges a similar grammatical issue in the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar.
posted by johngoren at 2:02 AM on September 6, 2022

When you put it as "Ask we, Democrats" it immediately jumps out as wrong, but if you started from "we Democrats" as a phrase you might naturally get to "Ask we Democrats" without realising the error.
posted by crocomancer at 2:44 AM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Ask them Democrats
posted by boudicca at 4:08 AM on September 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

It has to be ‘ask we Democrats’. The fact that you’ve added a comma may indicate a subtle misunderstanding. What’ s being said is, ‘ask us (we) who are Democrats’, not ‘ask us, you people who are Democrats’. I think the latter reading of the fragment is the wrong one, but if that’s how you’re reading it, it would perhaps make the grammatical error less likely.
posted by Phanx at 7:52 AM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Lionel Shriver, although American, now lives in the UK. What has caught her ear, I am sure, is a construction of spoken Southern US English which catches the ear of UK English speakers: "ask them Democrats for a better solution" / "tell them liberals how the real world works". At first glance the error is obviously one of grammar: those Democrats, those liberals, just as in the phrase "how do you like them [those] apples". Lionel Shriver keeps mentally correcting the speaker and we as readers would naturally assume she corrects the speaker to "ask those Democrats". However what she actually does is a deft piece of wordplay not "ask those Democrats" but "ask us Democrats" which reveals that "them" in this context is in fact appositive not a demonstrative determiner. That is, not those Democrats over there as opposed to these Democrats over here; rather Them, those people who are Democrats as opposed to Us, the speaker and the speaker's audience, people who are Republicans. She subverts the speaker's intention by making Us Democrats though crucially does not correct the grammar merely substitutes third-person plural for first-person plural.
posted by boudicca at 8:23 AM on September 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

I think this is the same sort of thing as when someone says "they gave the toy to Joe and I." They've been corrected for saying "Joe and me went to catch the train" in the past, and either don't know or don't understand why. Instead, they think "every time I want to say 'Joe and me,' I should say 'Joe and I,' instead." Then they do that, even when "Joe and me" would actually be appropriate, as a matter of habit.

In this case, someone was told, "You don't say 'us Democrats believe XYZ,' you say "we Democrats believe XYZ" and took that to mean they should always use "we" even when it isn't actually correct.
posted by papayaninja at 8:23 AM on September 6, 2022 [12 favorites]

papayaninja has hit upon what I came into say about hypercorrection. (Misuse of "myself" is the one that makes me wince.)
posted by emelenjr at 8:38 AM on September 6, 2022 [8 favorites]

Oh cool. there's a word for it! Well, replace my whole comment with emelnjr's wikipedia page!
posted by papayaninja at 8:47 AM on September 6, 2022

I still mentally diagram sentences when I'm unsure. Shriver is correct, though ask us Democrats is ugly on the ears, and a better construction should be found. We're Democrats, ask us.
posted by theora55 at 9:14 AM on September 6, 2022

I am not skilled with grammar nor have I ever heard this particular specific issue, but my first inclination was "ask democrats". No "us" and no "we". I guess that leaves out the participation of the speaker as a democrat, but that sounds best to me. But, I can see from the responses, I be wrong.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:21 AM on September 6, 2022

I also strain to imagine someone just saying "Ask we Democrats." But maybe Shriver cut off the rest of the sentence for brevity, like "Don't ask the Republicans what they're going to do, ask we Democrats, since we are the ones who will have to blah, blah . . ." I can imagine that phrasing being used, especially if there's a "we" in the clause after "Democrats."
posted by skewed at 9:51 AM on September 6, 2022

The use of "we" as an object pronoun can be heard in a number of dialects in the North East of England, and also in Scotland, where I am from. English is a flexible, ever-changing language, and it might be that what we're dealing with here is variation in dialect, as boudicca suggests, rather than hypercorrection (though this can't be ruled out either, for sure).

It's important to remember that policing other people's use of the English language is a joyless folly, associated with classism and racism. Make no mistake, Shriver isn't generally appreciative of the differences she hears in the speech of those unlike her. As she says here, "Rather than infuse En­glish with a new vitality, this degeneration spreads the blight of sheer ignorance."

Famously, Shriver has attacked the idea of increased diversity in the range of authors who are published: "If an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling."

Of course, we all find it interesting to think about why people use the words and phrases they do, and I have no idea where Shriver actually heard someone talk about "we democrats." At the same time, it's useful for us to be aware of where the writer of this seemingly light hearted article is coming from.
posted by cincinnatus c at 10:02 AM on September 6, 2022 [5 favorites]

We MeFites have the answers, OP. We MeFites can solve any riddle for you. When you have a query, just ask we us MeFites. You can count on we us.
posted by MiraK at 10:02 AM on September 6, 2022 [7 favorites]

"Ask the Democrats"? Quite a stretch, I'll admit...
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:57 AM on September 6, 2022

cincinnatus c: It's important to remember that policing other people's use of the English language is a joyless folly

For certain values of joy and folly, maybe. And for some, like myself me, it's a job.
posted by emelenjr at 5:30 AM on September 7, 2022

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