I vs. Me

By Maeve Maddox

Some personal pronouns have two forms, one that is used as the subject of a verb and one that is used as the object of a verb or preposition.

Subject forms: I, he, she, we, they
My sister and I live in Texas. We raise chickens. (subject forms)
Jack and she moved to Paris. They love it there. (subject forms)

Object forms: me, him, her, us, them
Mary gave me your address. (indirect object of a verb)
The neighbors invited my wife and me to dinner. (object of a verb)
We met him at the movies. We met her there too. We like them. (objects of a verbs)
Jack writes to him every day. We went with them. (objects of prepositions)

Presumably, these distinctions are taught to children in school. Supposedly, teachers and other school personnel model this usage to the students. Yet this is what we hear all around us:

“Me and my friends went to Miami.”
“The Governor invited my wife and I to dinner.”

Those of us who know and care that I is a subject word and me is an object word react to such usage with feelings–if not cries–of outrage, but they continue.

Actors portraying psychologists, FBI agents, and medical examiners declare,

“Me and my colleagues interviewed the suspect.”
“Him and his girlfriend were seen on the balcony.”
“Make a reservation for Megan and I.”

Don’t the actors know better even if the scriptwriters are semi-literate?

The answer may well be that both actors and scriptwriters “know better,” but don’t care. They may desire to speak in a nonstandard way to show their freedom from what they regard as stuffy rule-following convention.

On the other hand, they may not “know better.” They may genuinely believe that it’s correct to use Me as a subject and I as an object in a compound, even though they would never use them that way when the subject or object is not a compound.

With grammatical constructions–as with Big Lies–if we hear them often enough, they will eventually “sound right.”

Language changes inexorably from generation to generation. Pronouns alter more slowly than any other part of speech, but they do change.

English once had three pronoun numbers: singular, dual, and plural. We lost the dual form early on. The singular second person pronoun thou and its forms thee, thy and thine dropped out of popular speech in the 16th century. (The Quakers retained some of the usage.)

The second person plural went through some changes before settling on you for both singular and plural. Before you won as the all-purpose second person pronoun, ye was the subject form and you was the object form. The distinction was still being observed in the KJV translation of the Bible, but in popular speech, ye and you were becoming muddled:

No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. –1611 translation of Job 12:2
A southwest wind blow on ye And blister you all over! –Shakespeare’s The Tempest, c.1611.

As painful as the thought is to those of us who care, the mix-up of me and I in compound subjects and objects may become the norm.

What do you think? Is there any way to reverse the trend?

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24 Responses to “I vs. Me”

  • Nancy Romness

    The rules are so simple! I would like to slap/spank/rap the knuckles of the television writers who allow poor pronoun usage in their scripts. If I were an actor, I would refuse to say the faulty lines as written (unless the character is supposed to be an illiterate, “ain’t”-spouting loser). There is no excuse for modeling incorrect grammar for the poor dopes who haven’t been taught acceptable speaking and writing in school. Yes, please let’s fight the battle to reverse the sad trend!

  • Ken

    I think we can cut actors and scriptwriters some slack, since many regional variations that would be accepted in informal speech would be less acceptable in writing, even informal writing. Examples that come quickly to mind are “youse”,”you’s”, “you all”, “y’all”, and “all y’all.”

  • Gary

    I used to be very critical of the misuse of “me” as a predicate nominative in the statement “It’s me” or “It is me.” Then my then boss told me that “It’s me” is derived from the French “C’est moi” which clearly uses an objective pronoun after a linking verb. Technically incorrect in French as well? “C’est je” seems awkward as does “It’s I.” I found myself much less bothered after this consideration, though in compound subjects and compound objects it is still very objectionable.

  • Nancy Romness

    Ken, note that Maeve Maddox was zeroing in on supposedly intelligent characters: “Actors portraying psychologists, FBI agents, and medical examiners…” You are right that some characters may say regional “you’s” and “y’all.” But we hope that the ones with the degrees will use “I” and “me” correctly.

  • Tony Hearn

    Yes, the distinctions matter. They are surely taught at school. But then there are the complicating factors, in informal situations, of casualness, colloquialism (and that’s Hard to nail down), and sheer forgetfulness of what we were taught,. Then there’s the demon hyper-correctness, born of uncertainty. Then, further, there is dialect. Here in Britain pronouns are often highly unstable in local dialect and that, I suspect, adds to the uncertainty. So what to do? I think educators first have to have a thorough grasp of language: to know formal from informal registers, and standard from non-standard local usage (which is often vibrant and expressive, and certainly can be an essential expression of community), and realize that both have their place and neither, in their place is wrong, but be themselves – and teach their charges to be – sensitive and aware of appropriate contexts. They have fine line to tread. That said and agreed, we need consistency in application. In school, all teachers should insist on standard forms in written work and in formal spoken address. What we don’t want is everyone speaking and writing identically everywhere, all the time. But equally we want to banish the squeal-factor of usages that are inappropriate or just plain wrong!

  • John

    Along similar lines, I have to grit my teeth when I hear reflexive pronouns used incorrectly. “You can give it to Sally, Tom or myself”. Even more annoying, although rarer, is the use of reflexive pronouns when there are no other objects in the sentence. “You can give it to myself.” I’m not sure how this happened. Perhaps folks think that ‘myself’ always emphasizes the personal pronoun, as in the correct usage “I myself have seen a UFO”.

    Interesting side note, in the first example above my not-so-trusty Microsoft grammar checker suggested changing the first ‘myself’ to ‘I’, but correctly suggested ‘me’ in the second.

  • Danny

    There’s a very funny bit about “you and I” vs. “you and me” in Guys and Dolls.

    In popular music, I get a perverse kick out of correcting the improper us of “you and I” in song lyrics. I don’t care if it spoils a rhyme — rhyming is no excuse for sloppy grammar!!

    And Ken, “youse,” “y’all,” and other non-standard variants still work within the bounds of good grammar and usage. But I can’t think of situations where native users of such variants would tack on “and me” or “and I” when using “y’all.” (Although I was surprised when a hotel worker in Gatlinburg said “Thank y’all” to me. Just me. All by my lonesome.)

  • Pete Sjogren

    Hi,

    Amen! but you didn’t mention predicate nomintives where the subject acts as the object when the verb to be is used). I think this has led to much of the confussion you discuss.

  • Maeve

    Ken,
    I live in a “y’all” region of the U.S., but even here, educated speakers distinguish between a colloquialism like “y’all” and nonstandard grammar like “Me and him went.”

    Danny,
    Maybe the hotel worker was a Yankee trying to sound Southern! Or maybe even the usage of “y’all” differs according to region. Where I live, “you” is singular and “y’all” is plural.

    Nancy,
    My point exactly.

    Of possible interest: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/colloquial-does-not-have-to-equate-with-ignorant/

  • Matt Gaffney

    Nancy Romness is right in urging one and all to try to reverse the trend of misusing pronouns, but I honestly think that she’s begged the question when she refers to “poor dopes who haven’t been taught acceptable speaking and writing in school.”

    Perhaps half the time the lessons were taught, but weren’t learned by the “poor dopes,” and half the time the teachers themselves were the “poor dopes” who passed on unacceptable “speaking and writing in school.”

    It’s a grave error to presume that all teachers know their subject thoroughly—teacher incompetence in Southwest Missouri (at all levels, including university) is the rule rather than the exception!; remember, it’s a job nowadays, not a vocation or even a career.

    Another slight flaw in Ms Romness’s arguments is her reference to “intelligent characters.” I’ve met many federal agents, medical examiners, and psychiatrists and psychologists and, while I’ll grant that most have at least slightly above-average intelligence, I don’t think that’s enough. Without a good education, even the most intelligent person is going to have a rough time with one thing or another in this life. Although I’m a long-time Mensa member, I didn’t learn when to use “fewer/less” or “compose/comprise” until I (1) heard the difference from people whom I knew to be better educated than I and (2) made the effort to research the differences.

    I think Ken is dead wrong in urging that we “cut . . . [them] . . . some slack” because of regional variations in informal speech. The effect of Ken’s understandable but wrongheaded compassion is that people should be bilingual: correct English when in formal circumstances and regional-variant English in informal situations. Tony Hearn seems to support Ken’s notion that bilingual English is the way to go, but I really think it’s a mistake to follow that advice.

    This is not advice one should give people who have trouble grasping even a single form of English and it’s not altogether different from the absurd notions that gave rise to “Ebonics” in the U.S. almost forty years ago. Read anything by the linguist John McWhorter and then decide if it’s beneficial or constructive to cut anyone any slack when it comes to grammar and diction. Linguistics has its own form of Gresham’s law: poor grammar and diction displace and supplant good grammar and diction, i.e., it’s easier to be willfully ignorant (stupid) than it is to strive for correctness.

    As for any possible reversal of the degrading trend, dare to dream! As Mr. Hearn might acknowledge quicker than most, Cnut established that even a king couldn’t stop the tide from rising. With that in mind, there’s simply no possibility that intelligent, educated, experienced, articulate speakers of English will slow, much less reverse, the erosion of good English.

    In the meantime, use only good English: loquatur et scribatur—let it be spoken and written.

  • Matt Gaffney

    @Danny: the southern piney-woods singular is “y’all” and the plural is “all y’all.” The Gatlinburg hotel staffer was both polite and, by his lights, correct.

  • Ken

    @Matt Gaffney: I wasn’t suggesting that people should be bilingual. I’m suggesting that if you’re an actor, or a scriptwriter, or a novelist, you must portray characters accurately, even if they’re people who you would expect to be speaking speak non-standard English. Some of the greatest works of American literature would look foolish if the characters were written to speak proper, standard English.

  • Nancy Romness

    “Y’all” is also used (unfortunately) as a possessive adjective.
    I nearly fell out of my seat the first time I heard, from a waiter at a restaurant in Dallas, “How’s y’all’s food?” (I am at a loss as to how to use apostrophes here!)

  • Lisa Tepper

    I hate to admit that I cringe every time I see “and me”, as in “The president of the company invited John and me to dinner.” Growing up in a relatively small town in Jersey in the 70’s, we were taught (I swear to God we were taught this!), to use “I”: “The president of the company invited John and I to dinner.”

    I understand the reasoning behind using “John and me”, which makes perfect sense of course, but even though it’s been just a few years since elementary school (haha), my first reaction in seeing a sentence like that would be to correct it.

  • Gregory Bryce

    I am puzzled by two things in this excerpt.

    >>Before *you* won as the all-purpose second person pronoun, *ye* was the subject form and *you* was the object form. The distinction was still being observed in the AV translation of the Bible, but in popular speech, *ye* and *you* were becoming muddled:

    >>No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. –1611 translation of Job 12:2
    >>A southwest wind blow on ye And blister you all over! –Shakespeare’s The Tempest, c.1611. <<

    What is the "AV translation" of 1611? That is 9 years after the King James Version, as it's called in Canada and the U.S. (I believe it has a different name in the U.K.)

    Is the example from The Tempest an example of the muddling of you and ye? "Ye" is the object of the preposition "on"; "you" is the object of the verb "blister."

  • M.E.

    Case is important in many languages. However, English relies more on word order than case to differentiate who is doing what to whom. Furthermore, case inside coordinated constructions varies a lot crosslinguistically. Therefore, from a linguistic standpoint, this type of prescriptive rule is not really helpful is clarifying anything. It doesn’t actually improve communication or the language to have the correct case in this case.

    Secondly, case confusion inside coordinated constructions is not something new to our generation. In fact, Shakespeare was guilty of such an “error”.

    All debts are cleerd betweene you and I … (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, 1596)

    So what does it matter if these educated people are wrong? I think this is a grammatical pet peeve that people should let go. It is not something that really makes a semantic difference and has long existed in English.

  • maevemaddox

    Gregory,
    1. I should have put “KJV” and not “AV.” I’ll see if I can have that corrected. Thanks

    2. Yes, The Tempest quotation is intended to show that the usage was breaking down. Both “you” and “ye” are being used as objects.

  • venqax

    I think there is an easy and useful distinction here. When writing dialogue, be it for movies, stage, novel, etc. it is of course necessary to write it how the characters would speak it. Proper grammar is, obviously, irrelvant to that overriding purpose. Done.

    In almost all other written contexts, however, non-standard, sub-standard or dialectical exotics like y’all and youse are not appropriate at all. Certainly formal or even business-casual English does not tolerate it as professionally appropriate. Even if it is limited only to speech it is inadvisable if your audience contains anyone not entirely soaked in such colloquialisms. So, unless you’re sure that no one you care about hearing you is from outside a small and identifiable sub-culture, skip all the y’alls and the all y’alls, even at the Biloxi Rotary Club.

  • Tracie Marquardt

    Interesting that two words sparked such a passionate conversation! I also break “the rules” in speech. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes because I am speaking from my regional roots. (e.g. There’s three of them.)

    The Guardian newspaper in the UK recently published an article with the opinion that one should know how to speak perfect English and then one can choose, selectively, to break a few rules. I find this narrow-minded, unachievable and unnecessary in our global society today. Most people don’t know all the rules and I am not convinced they need to. But they do need to speak in a way that enables them to communicate their ideas and concepts clearly and concisely, in a way that others will understand.

    People here ask me about lyrics they hear in songs. “Is that right? Can I say that?” Yes, you can say it, but no, it is not right. They are song lyrics.

    No doubt I have also broken many rules in my wee note here. 😉

  • Dale A. Wood

    Someone asked rather clearly what “AV” means concerning Bibles, but then neither Maeve nor anyone else explained what it means. Sorry, but I belive that when a reasonable question is asked, it deseves an answer. The AV of the Bible means the “Authorized Version” of the Bible. That is the one that was authorized by King James II of England, I believe. I will leave it up to you to figure out James I or James II. In either case, the translation was authorized by the King.

    I am sorry to say that this is something that I have seen on these pages before: Someone asks a clear questions, but then the next person(s) wanders around the subject without ever answering it.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Quoting: “Presumably, these distinctions are taught to children in school. Supposedly, teachers and other school personnel model this usage to the students.”

    That does not hold water because children are supposed to learn the correct usage of pronouns, as well as the conjugation of verbs, well-before school age, and they often do. In other words, these things are supposed to be learned at the ages of two and three, and they learn them from their parents, guardians, grandparents, neighbors, cousins, older siblings, etc. This is EXCEPT when those people do not use correct grammar themselves. That can be a catch.

    I was blessed in that I grew up around people like these:
    1. My mother, a schoolteacher with a bachelor’s degree
    2. My father, a schoolteacher and a principal with a master’s degree
    3. My father’s brother, an electrical engineer
    4. The members of my paternal grandmother’s family, nine children who all earned high school diplomas (when those weren’t common in Alabama), and several became teachers. Also, their father (my great-grandfather) was a teacher as well as a farmer.

    However, I am sure that there are millions of other children who grew up around doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, editors, dentists, librarians, architects, clergymen, scientists, psychologists, technologists (with bachelor’s degrees), veterinarians, aviators, etc. They didn’t learn everything about language at school — they had already learned it at home.

    Many people do not know it, but the most numerous profession in the United States and Canada is teacher, and the second largest profession is engineer. I will leave the European countries, Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, etc., up to you to find out about.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Dale and Gregory,
    I didn’t realize that Gregory was asking the meaning of “AV.” I thought he was correcting my use of “AV” for “KJV.” Now that I think about it, I’m wondering about Gregory’s statement: “What is the “AV translation” of 1611? That is 9 years after the King James Version.” To the best of my knowledge, King James commissioned the new translation in 1604, seven years before the first pages were published in 1611. So, now I’m puzzled. Anyway, both KJV (King James Version) and AV (Authorized Version) refer to the translation authorized by James I.

  • Florence

    If you are puzzled by subjects, objects etc., just try this: When you want to say, “The Smiths invited John and I to dinner” try saying it in your mind leaving out John and saying your sentence, “The Smiths invited I to dinner”. You will then be aware that you have to say “me” instead. “She sent a gift to John and I.” Did she send the gift to John and to “I”? No, she sent the gift to John and me.

  • Herbert Grosshans

    I cringe every time I hear someone say something like ‘Say hello to John from my wife and I’ or ‘Listen, you and me have to talk about that’. It doesn’t even sound right.
    One of my favorite sayings is: Just because five billion people do it doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean I have to do it, too. (My wife is getting tired of hearing it from me -:) )
    Our job us writers is to learn the correct form of writing and then use it. However, I have to admit that when writing dialog between characters it is okay to write the way those characters may talk. An uneducated person will not know how to talk properly. To make him talk ‘educated’ will be phony and make the story dull and not real.

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