A very dear reader, Stanley Johnson, recently reminded me just how much I love words. I’ve been sadly remiss in my musings on words lately, so will tackle a question from another reader, Marlene Ward, who believes I should address abuse of the pronouns “I” and “me.”
Incorrect word usage
The correct use of the words “me” and “I” needs to be addressed by Brenda Looper. People have become so afraid of using the word “me” that they now wrongly say “I” instead … even news anchors who should know better are guilty.
MARLENE J. WARD
Your wish is my command, Marlene!
And you’re right: People who should know better—reporters, writers, on-air talent, even teachers—are just as guilty of this error as are others.
In The King’s English, Kingsley Amis called this “hyper-urbanism”—“an indulged desire to be more correct than correct or posher than posh. A hyper-urbanism arises when a speaker puts into practice a badly taught or badly learnt lesson about the avoidance of vulgar or rustic error.”
What it does, though, rather than making someone sound “posh,” is make even the educated sound uneducated.
In conversation with family and friends, errors like that are fairly easily excused (unless you happen to have an English teacher in the group). In professional life, not so much. So yeah, don’t talk about “Daddy and them” with your boss at the office unless that boss is a fan of Billy Bob Thornton movies. And certainly don’t say, “Me and him went frog-giggin’ last night on them thar four-wheelers.” Unless maybe you work for Billy Bob Thornton.
We hear misuse of “me” and “I” all the time, such as “Mr. Phillips gave John and I the stink-eye,” or “John and me are heading to the principal’s office.”
As the Grammarly blog points out, the two words are not interchangeable, and that’s because one is the subjective case, used as the subject in a sentence (I), and the other is the objective case, used as the object (me). Clearly, then, the stink-eye was given to John and me, and John and I are going to the principal’s office.
That’s the last time I let John pull me in on one of his pranks. Especially the ones that aren’t that funny or successful.
More than a few of my teachers through the years told their classes to, when using a compound subject or object, take the other person out of the sentence and see if it still makes sense; if you sound like a caveman (Me am heading to the principal’s office), it’s not correct.
But “John and I” sounds so much smarter, I hear some of you say. Pipe down there, you. If it’s used as the object rather than the subject of the sentence, it makes you sound as if you only halfway (if at all) paid attention in class. Don’t make me break out the sentence diagrams! (It’s been forever.)
As Shakespeare might say, aye, me … (yeah, grammar humor … so sue me.)
“I” and “me” aren’t the only pronouns that get misused, but I have little doubt they’re the most abused. Subject pronouns “he,” “she,” “we” and “they” and object pronouns “him,” “her,” “us” and “them” are often misused as well, but don’t get nearly the attention the others do in a world where it’s all about “I” and “me.” Don’t even get me started on “who” and “whom” … no, really … I mean that. That way lies annoyance and aneurysms. Bonus points, by the way, for anyone who noticed “you” and “it” missing from the list of subjective and objective pronouns. Since they’re the same form either way, there’s really no need to mention them. Other than this, obviously.
But back to those subjective and objective pronouns. Another way to determine which one is the correct one to use is to remember that the subjective case performs an action in a sentence, while the objective case has the action done to it.
“John and I glued the lockers shut” would be the subjective form; scamps that we are, we decided to take the action of emptying a tub of Gorilla Glue into the locker doors.
“The principal suspended John and me for perpetrating such a sophomoric prank” is the objective form, with the principal taking action against John and me, all because of our brilliant idea of a joke. Note to self: Next time, do better research on adhesives for metal and quick getaways.
Misuse of “I” and “me” is bad enough, but if you really want to drive a grammar grouch ’round the bend, toss “myself” into the mix which, true to Amis’ hyper-urbanism, is often just an attempt to sound more educated that one really is.
“Myself” is a reflexive pronoun, like yourself, himself, etc., and refers back only to the subject of the sentence. If I said, “I’m going to punish myself for going along with John’s prank,” that would be correct. If I said “John and myself will be spending the next week in detention,” it would be incorrect because it should be the subject pronoun “I” in this instance; “I” was not in the sentence before, so “myself” cannot refer back to the subject.
“Myself” is also an intensive pronoun used for emphasis, such as, “I myself played lookout while John glued the lockers shut.” That’s grammatically correct, but annoying to those of us who dislike unnecessary melodrama.
And to avoid further melodrama, I think I’ll distance myself from John’s pranks for a while.
Speaking of melodrama, there’s a never-ending supply of it in the presidential race. We have the near-constant gaffes, dog whistles, Twitter tantrums and denials (it was sarcasm! *wink*) by Donald Trump and his minions, as well as the dense fog of controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton.
One of the latest crimes against grammar (see, you knew I’d bring it around to grammar) was Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson committing a “literal” grammar sin when talking to Fox Business: “The voters want someone that’s gonna fight back because they are tired of seeing left-wing reporters literally beat Trump supporters into submission into supporting policies they don’t agree with.”
Wow … surely there’s video of that … heck, there might be a second job in it for these reporters (MMA, here they come!).
Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark wrote an excellent essay on the responsibilities of journalists in the current race, which includes keeping an ear out for what the candidates say,and I think those who aren’t journalists can benefit from his insight as well. You can read it here.