TV’s War on “Me” and “I”

By Maeve Maddox

Television scriptwriters — or perhaps actors who are failing to read what has been written for them–seem to be determined to reverse the functions of the pronouns “I” and “me” in American speech.

Refresher
I is the subject form of the first person personal pronoun. It stands for the person speaking. This subject form is used as the subject of a sentence:
I am attending a conference in Chicago this week.
Charles and I are attending the conference together.

NOTE: The courteous way to construct a compound subject in which I is one of the subject words is to place the other person first: Charles and I are attending. He and I are attending.

Purists may insist on “It is I,” but in conversation, most Americans say “It’s me.” It’s safe to say, therefore, that the ONLY time to use the pronoun I is as the subject of a sentence.

Me is the object form of the first person personal pronoun. It is the receiver of an action or the object of a preposition. It is NEVER the subject of a verb. Examples:

Direct object:
Please invite me.
Please invite Tommy and me.

Indirect object:
Give me the book.
Give James and me the book.

Object of preposition:
Dad’s riding with me. (object of “with”)
The children live with Sally and me.

In writing fiction I know enough not to put the same grammar or vocabulary in the mouths of a child, a garage mechanic, an ESL learner, and a college professor.

On the other hand, unless there’s something about the character’s personality to make him deliberately flaunt the rules of standard English, I would have a native English speaker who has completed at least eight years of formal education use the pronouns I and me correctly.

I might put the construction “Me and him went to the movies” into the mouth of a privately-educated teenager who wanted to make his parents cringe, but I wouldn’t give the line to an assistant district attorney–unless I meant for the reader to question her credibility.

See what you think of these gleanings from Prime Time:

Law and Order
“Him and Eric had words at the Baby Doll” —a young bank executive
“Did he ever confide in you what him and Kate have been going through?” —Detective Green
“Callng on Wong and I to attend” –Alexandra Borgia, Assistant District Attorney

Cold Case Files
“Vic and him stopped talking as soon as she moved out.” —a fireman

Without A Trace
“I was looking for a recent photo of Jimmy and I” —affluent, apparently educated girlfriend of a missing person
“Did he ever talk about a grudge between he and some of the guys?” —Jack Malone, senior FBI agent

Numbers
“I made a reservation for Megan and I at an Ethiopian restaurant.” —Larry Fleinhardt, PhD

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40 Responses to “TV’s War on “Me” and “I””

  • Reinaldo

    Simply a perfect article. Thanks!

  • Alek Davis

    My daughter’s English teacher has taught her a simple rule, which I found helpful. If you’re not sure whether to say “I and …” or “me and …,” try the sentence without the “and …” part. For example, you would not say “Me went to the movies,” thus you would not say “Me and Nick went to the movies.” I like the point about distinguishing “I” as the subject from “me” as the object. Thank you!

  • freddie

    3 of the 4 bad examples you mention are on CBS. Might be the same writer.

  • Maeve

    Freddie,
    Good point. I did hear the construction “Stanley and me did such and such” on the opening episode of NBC’s The Office, but those characters are likely to say anything. I’ll cruise the other networks.

  • Gwen

    I can’t say what the writer(s) were thinking but I cringe when I see/hear mistakes like,

    “Callng on Wong and I to attend” –Alexandra Borgia, Assistant District Attorney

    “I was looking for a recent photo of Jimmy and I” —affluent, apparently educated girlfriend of a missing person

    “I made a reservation for Megan and I at an Ethiopian restaurant.” —Larry Fleinhardt, PhD

    I can’t tell if the writer has a crock degree or if it’s an insinuation at a flaw in the character’s education. When people make the mistake of using “I” where they should use “me”, I feel like they are trying too hard to avoid – as they should – sound ill-educated as you would sound saying, “Sam and me went to the store.” I feel as those people are overall avoiding using “me” and only listened to half of their English lesson.

  • Maeve

    Gwen,
    I too used to think that the misuse of “I” was an effort to sound genteel, and it may be. But what would explain the proliferaton of “me” to begin a sentence?

  • Jigme

    I always think a lot and i do speak inside but i can’t speak outside. I’ve a problem in translating my thoughts into words. i know i’m a man of limited words. But i always think of improving myself and i try to read as much as i get time and i try to write when i feel like. As far as i know, my improvement is as slow as i think. Can there be better methods that suits me to improve my writing skills and speaking too.

  • Maeve

    Jigme,
    You’re on the right track to improving your reading and writing skills by doing both as much as possible. Something else you might try is reading aloud from novels that contain a lot of dialogue, or from contemporary plays. That would give you practice in conversational speech.

  • S

    I see your point about the dialogue fitting the character’s class and education level. I just don’t agree that formal education equals using “I” and “me” correctly. I hear people of all education levels and social classes mixing up these two words all the time. The way that people speak is often very different from what they know to be correct or how they would usually WRITE something.

  • Maeve

    I recognize that informal conversation does not necessarily follow the rules of written language. I would not myself make the same word choices at a family Christmas gathering that I might at a social event with professional colleagues. I hardly ever use “whom” in conversation, but I’m careful to use it where called for in writing.

    I also enjoy playing with language. My children and I often joke with structures or pronunciations we all know to be nonstandard.

    However, when it comes to speaking to or in front of people with whom we are not on intimate terms, it’s in a person’s interest to speak as correctly as possible.

    Outside the individual’s circle of family and friends, nonstandard usage marks a speaker as being uneducated.

    Nonstandard speech in the mouth of a friend or a transmission expert or a plumber does not bother me. On the other hand, I would not be inclined to use the services of a doctor, lawyer, tutor, or other academically prepared professional who used “me” as a subject.

  • Gwen

    >>But what would explain the proliferaton of “me” to begin a sentence?

    You mean, for example, “Me and him went to the movies?” Coming from a teenager who presumably presently has pressure to learn the proper way to speak, s/he is rebelling against the rules. Coming from someone much older, I would admit that a habit is difficult to break.

    On the other hand, I cringe at deliberate flouting, like deliberately naming a song, “The Way I Are.” It seems as if the artists are trying to create a new slang and make errors seem “cool”.

  • Zach Everson

    The problem isn’t just on TV. I often hear people use “I” almost exclusively. In addition to being wrong, it sounds pretentious.

  • stanley ojiaku

    hello. send me mails on english language.thanks.

  • Maeve

    Stanley,
    click on the Email Updates at the top of this page.

  • –Deb

    There is a difference, to my mind, between a character’s education and/or stress level and correct grammar in a given situation. (“911? Somebody’s shooting at Harry and I” is clearly wrong, but I’m willing to allow it.) It’s when the actual writers don’t seem to know the difference that it drives me nuts!

  • Vish

    One simple rule has helped me – ”I peforms action, me does not”

  • Mark Anthony

    I completely agree with you about the refreshing nature of someone who actually catches themselves in their erroneous usage of “I” or “we.”

    But, perhaps we are overlooking the possibility that the writer knows the difference and is trying to write the dialog “realistically.”

    Also, methinks that we are possibly overlooking the way that older forms of grammar infiltrate modern usage at the lower ends of the education spectrum, especially in geographically and culturally isolated groups, such as Appalachia.

    Additionally, we are also probably overlooking the “cool” factor of using non-standard constructions in entertainment and youth cultures. “That’s just the way I is,” for example, or, “I is what I is.”

    In my experience, other than simple mistakes in the course of “live” conversation, most of the misuse of “I” stems from the marginally educated attempting to be correct, but falling short. For instance, on MySpace and FaceBook, when browsing my students’ photos (I’m a college English Instructor), I find that they often label them with captions like, “Joey and I.” The average masses, when speaking their vernacular usage, will usually just use “me” in every construction and avoid “I”, unless they are attempting to *sound* educated, in which case they will then begin to substitute “I” mostly in all the wrong places.

    I do have one question… If I were (since it is actually possible to do this, I should write “If I was,” but that is so much less understood today that I cowtow to mass ignorance and write “If I were” to avoid having to defend my correct usage)… So, anyway, if I were to caption a photo, “This is Joey and I,” would I be wrong? Or should it be, “This is Joey and me?” (Hint: This is a rhetorical question meant to stimulate discussion, not to demonstrate what I actually do or do not know.)

  • Luke Sherwood

    About the only place to use “I” in the objective case is in a statement like “He’s taller than I (because of the understood addition of “am” at the end of the sentence: “He’s taller than I am”).
    Is this one instance of something correct sounding less than correct? Is it correct at all? Is “He’s taller than me” becoming correct?

    The wise crave correction and coincidentally, I do, too.

  • Maeve

    Luke,
    “I” can never be in the objective case because “I” is the subject form of the first person singular pronoun.

    In the construction “He’s taller than I” the “I” is the subject of the unstated verb “am.”

    The construction “He’s taller than me” could be condemned by purists as incorrect, but it is a usage that is now very widespread. One can argue that “than” is a preposition here and “me” is the object of it.

  • Mark Anthony

    My answer to my own question is that both are acceptable and correct.

    The use of “me” versus “I” in American Standard English is no longer the product of a simple universal rule. Both are often correct and acceptable in certain situations as common, customary, and reputable usage has changed over time.

    This approach hinges on acceptance of the philosophy that language usage (syntax) is alterable over time as also are phonology (pronunciation), morphology (spelling/word structure), and lexical meaning (semantics). Rather than grammar being a system of rules imposed on language from without, or embedded in language and supporting it from within, this view sees language as a constant negotiation carried out in actual usage governed at any particular point in time by customary usage and widespread acceptance and adoptation. Grammar is, according to this view, the system of rules or pattern of customary usage we discover upon examining the language in actual use. Thus, many forms of English exist, some considered standard and other considered non-standard, or vernacular. But all the forms — whether American Standard English, British Standard English, Appalachian Vernacular English, Black Vernacular English, or Southern Vernacular English — are capable of grammatical description.

    For instance, the Appalachian usage of prefixing verbs with “a” and suffixing them with “ing” (I’m agoing to the store) is not random, but is used in a customary and typified way. The same is true of other so-called non-standard usages. Such typification, when described and documented, can thus be termed a grammar. The grammar of a language or dialect can then be reproduced, or taught. This is precisely what occurred when Sequoyah produced a Cherokee alphabet/syllabary. It was then necessary that grammars of the Cherokee language then be produced so that others could learn the language and children could be instructed in customary usage. In fact, as Cherokee is the only Iroquoian language remaining in daily use, it could be argued that descriptive grammars do have some use in sustaining a language per se.

    Many of us, including myself as a native south Georgian, grew up essentially speaking a local dialect of English and then had to learn the “new language” of American Standard English in school (or not learn it, as the case may be).

    Thus, as Doctor Grammar puts it:

    It is I or it is me? According to the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language,”…instead of the old choice between right and wrong we are now choosing a style; it is a choice that is much closer to the reality of usage than the old one was…Clearly, both the it is I and it’s me patterns are in reputable use and have been for a considerable time. It is I tends to be used in more formal or more stuffy situations; it’s me predominates in real and fictional speech and in a more relaxed writing style. Him, her, us, and them may be less common after the verb to be than me is, but they are far from rare and are equally good” (566, 568).

    http://www.drgrammar.org/faqs/#73

  • Maeve

    Mark,
    The use of pronouns after forms of the verb to be is a special case. It’s me has always been felt to be more idiomatic than It is I. The prescription of It is I as the “correct” construction stems from the imposition of a rule of Latin grammar onto English. In Latin, nouns and pronouns take the subject form (nominative) with the verb to be. Applying that rule to English gives us It is I–a form hardly any native English speaker feels comfortable in saying.

    The choice to speak a non-standard form of English is fine on an individual/local level, but the fact remains that English is an international language. Educated people will want to be fluent in a standard form so as to be comprehensible in any situation.

    That is not to say that dual usage cannot exist in this “standard” form. It’s me is as understandable as It is I. Local usages, such as the Arkansas idiom “the bell’s fixin to ring,” on the other hand, would not convey much to someone who has learned English as a second language.

    It’s unfortunate that for some people a standard form of English usage has come to be seen as an instrument of class oppression.

  • theresa

    The other common tendency is the use of the reflexive pronoun, myself, in place of me or I, as in:

    Myself and Mike will attend the conference.

    I believe people try to appear intelligent through this type of usage, which is hardly effective!

  • Ruth Barkman

    I was reading the want ads in the K-W Record, the other day in which someone was advertising their house for sale. The descripton went according to the usual format, until it came to “ash vault” and then I had a chuckle, just as I have reading a word a day.

  • Alison Ulrich

    All these examples are ghastly, but has anyone noticed how frequently “myself” is being substituted for “me”? It could be lack of confidence about correct usage when you hear “it was agreed by Jack, Jill, and myself”; similarly the word “impact” is often used when a writer is not sure whether “effect” or “affect” is appropriate.

  • Maeve

    Allison,
    I think some incorrect usages are reinforced by celebrity interviews. The use of “myself” for “me” seems to me typical “celebrity-ese.”

    If you haven’t already, check out my post Me, Myself, and I.

  • Boye Akintola

    From all the examples above, I do not really know the correct way of using ‘me’ or I.
    I was almost supporting someone that said that one cannot say ‘me went to moovies ‘ and so will not write or say ‘me and John went to movies’ . But can one say ‘I and John went to movies’ or ‘John and I went to movies’?

  • Celeste

    Longer ago than I’d like to admit, I was taught in grammer school that certain personal pronouns ( “I, she, he, they, we”) of the NOMINATIVE CASE always FOLLOWED COPULATIVE VERBS . In the 1950’s, one of my teachers, a nun, assigned as English homework, a LIST of copulative verbs to be memorized .
    It has somehow stayed within my aging brain, however I cannot recall what I ate last night for dinner. (-:)

    Perhaps the list will serve to help anyone willing to memorize it. I don’t know if the info remains currently correct, esp since I never finished college and changes may have been made to it over these past many years.

    Copulative Verbs: “be, am, is, are, was, were, seem, shine, smell, sound, taste” and sometimes “continue”

  • George

    That was great. Thank you. I thought I was the only person who listens to this blunder and mentally (and sometimes vocally) reprimands the TV speaker.

  • Maeve

    Boye Akintola
    I just returned to this set of comments because of the most recent comment by George and noticed yours for the first time.

    — can one say ‘I and John went to movies’ or ‘John and I went to movies’?—

    “John and I went to the movies” is preferable. The “rule” I follow here is when the subject is plural and includes a pronoun, put the other person first

  • Cheryl

    To seek meaningful dialogue on television is to invite such informalitites into one’s life. TV is not a gold standard of the English language for the world. It is simply entertainment, and as such suffers from excessive, ‘Artistic License’. Characters often are deliberately given incorrect dialogue deliberately as a part of their portrayal.

  • sally

    I think Cheryl and I agree, although I believe that newscasters, professional speakers, etc should be held to a far higher standard than those on television shows designed purely for entertainment.

    My pet peeve for TV professionals (news, etc) is still the same: “There’s a lot of people out there…” If they thought for just a second they’d (hopefully) realize that the contraction should be’ there ARE’, not ‘there IS’.

    Another peeve is the improper use of ‘yourself’, as in this reply: “I’m fine. How’s yourself?”

    arrgghhhhh….

  • Erin

    The title of the last episode of Desperate Housewives is, ‘Me and My Town.’ Are they serious? This has become so ingrained in our society, the news paper regularly disregards this horrible linguistic error, as do news anchors, radio hosts on NPR, PRI, etc.. It used to bother me so much I couldn’t stand it. People do it so often now, I have given up hope they will ever stop.

  • Chris

    Can anyone tell me why we say ‘me too’ and not ‘I too’?

  • Garry Lee

    We say me too because that’s what is said by everyone. What everyone says is correct. That’s the way language works.
    e.g. There are is rapidly disappearing on this side of the Atlantic (Europe) in the last years.
    There’s numerous reasons etc. is suddenly appearing. It will become the norm if this trend persisits.
    20 years ago. How are you? I’m well.. was the norm. Now it’s “I’m good”

  • ekw

    I have noticed that many people use the incorrect “I”, and I think that in some cases it’s done in order to sound educated. They don’t know why there is a difference between the two, they have no idea that there is a grammar rule about subject and object, they just think that “I” sounds classier (a word that I love to hate but here it is apt), more “upscale” (how much do you hate *that* word?). I, also, tell people to eliminate the “and” and then listen to what it sounds like. I tell them, if you would use the word “we” then use the word “I”; if you would use the word, “us”, then use the word “me”. The same goes for they and them. And I also hate “different than”, I can’t stand the sound of it or the sight of it. “Different from” calms me down.

  • S.Blankstein

    Somehow I missed this nice article! Loved the “PhD” (last) example. The new president of Ukraine (Yanukovitch) is known to his constituency as “proFFessor”: This is how he spelled his occupation in the election campaign forms.

  • Doug

    A previous poster in this thread wrote “We say me too because that’s what is said by everyone. What everyone says is correct. That’s the way language works.”

    By this logic, then, “me and him should of went to the movies” should be considered correct? Most assuredly, that abomination flies regularly out of the mouths of a majority of under-25 people with whom I’m acquainted. But the notion that such endemic (mis) usage somehow makes garbage-speak like that “correct” just boggles the mind.

    Are we to change all of our textbooks from “he and I [verb]” to “me and him [verb]” and “should have gone” to “should of went” just because the number of ignoramuses who can’t be bothered to learn their native language exceeds the number who do learn more or less correct English?

    I’m sorry, but I have serious issues with the anarchistic “anything people say is correct” approach to language. It seems to me more on the order of a lame excuse for linguistic ignorance and/or laziness.

    Language without rules is just noise; unintelligible babble. The job of dictionaries and other linguistic authorities should be twofold: to document current usage AND to cite the correct forms when they differ from current usage.

    Just documenting current usage and calling it “correct” is a cop-out and a disservice to us all.

    *climbs down off of soap box and wanders aimlessly away, muttering vague imprecations to self and wiping spittle from mustache*

    🙂

  • Ray Lance

    Different from is fine. What is wrong about different than?

    The recent one that bothers me is different to. What’s the logic behind that?

    But, much as I would prefer unchanging correct grammar rules, language has always evolved. The ones that don’t are not spoken anymore (dead languages).

  • Mike

    Why do pronouns still have objective and subjective cases? No other nouns have them. If we want language to be “correct” all the time, we need to remove “me”, “us”, and “him” from the language.

  • Mara W.

    Alek Davis, thats a good rule, but the “Me and….” construction is incorrect. Always start with the other person:
    “That happened to Sam and me one time.”
    “Sam and I went to the movies last night.”
    And so on.

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