Dirty Dancing’s dirty little grammar ‘mistake’

This week marks the 25th anniversary of when Johnny met Baby, and a leotard-clad Patrick Swayze (RIP, Patrick!) danced his way to heartthrob status. Dirty Dancing debuted in theaters on August 21, 1987, becoming one of the most beloved films of the 1980s — and my life.

Still, I can admit that Dirty Dancing doesn’t always make sense. The biggest incongruity is the nonsensical (yet oddly addictive) soundtrack. The characters boogie down to some very ‘80s-sounding songs in a movie clearly set in the ‘60s. Considering this major discrepancy — which I excuse due to the sheer awesomeness of Dirty Dancing — it might seem strange that for years, my biggest problem with the movie was these two lines crooned by Eric Carmen in Hungry Eyes (the song that accompanies the dance practice montage where Johnny starts to fall for Baby):

I’ve got hungry eyes
I feel the magic between you and I

What’s wrong with this famous refrain, you ask? Well, let’s forget for a moment that it rhymes the word “eyes” with “I” (I mean, think about how much better it rhymes with romantic words like “thighs,” “french fries,” or “cauterize”). The real conundrum is the phrase, “between you and I.”

If you’re a stickler for grammar, then you’re thinking to yourself that this should be “between you and me” — and you’re right (Grammar Girl offers a great explanation of why that’s the case, for those of you who geek out over pronouns). Basically, saying “between you and I” is like saying “between we” instead of “between us.” I know, artists often take license with grammar in favor of rhyming, rhythm, or emotion. But Eric Carmen isn’t the first or last singer to belt out that erroneous phrase with a whole lot of feeling — Jessica Simpson has a song called “Between You and I.” So why does this pesky error persist?

Well, one theory is pretty simple.  As the website for Oxford Dictionaries puts it, “People make this mistake because they know it’s not correct to say, for example, ‘John and me went to the shops’. They know that the correct sentence would be ‘John and I went to the shops’. But they then mistakenly assume that the words ‘and me’ should be replaced by ‘and I’ in all cases.” We’re over-correcting ourselves with what we think sounds right.

The second theory is more complicated. A recent Lexicon Valley podcast for Slate presented a riveting debate (seriously) that managed to change my mind about the supposedly errant phrase in “Hungry Eyes.” It suggests that “between you and I” might not be “wrong,” per se. After all, it’s used more widely than “between you and me” by everyone from Shakespeare to Mark Twain to that guy you overheard on the train.

In other words, maybe the rules of language are dynamic. If a word or phrase catches on — anything from “gotta” to “bling” to  “between you and I” — it becomes a part of our cultural repertoire and contemporary language. Sometimes it even becomes officially sanctioned by the Oxford English Dictionary. It might not be grammatically correct, but that doesn’t mean it’s going away. The key is knowing when it’s important to follow the rules (i.e. if it’s your job to write grammatical, accurate prose) and when it’s okay to play with them, like in music, creative writing, and even daily conversation.

After all, good writing and communication isn’t always about the rules — it’s about how it feels, kind of like dancing. As Johnny Castle would say, “It’s not the mambo, it’s a feeling… a heartbeat.”

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6 thoughts on “Dirty Dancing’s dirty little grammar ‘mistake’

  1. Pingback: Focus On: Grammar Blogs | The Daily Post at WordPress.com

  2. This is awesome! Thank you– I’ve actually had to stop myself from committing this grammar crime because of the “it must always be ‘and I'” tendency.

  3. Brillaint! This same thing drives me crazy when listening to Lady Gaga’s ‘You and I’. Every time she say’s ‘you and I’ I’m shouting ‘me, me, me!’

  4. From the trajectory of Indo-European -> Latin -> Romance Languages, it seems pretty clear that humans don’t like to use cases (which begs the question of why we have them in the first place). I used to be a real prescriptivist re: grammar, but slowly gave up when I realized that language changes too darn fast; it’s hard to be prescriptivist with a moving target!

    ( ps: you would love Latin! )

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