Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Free grammar lesson.

This is a free grammar lesson because I am going to lose my mind.

I do not know if this happens in other English speaking countries, but in America, there is a horrible epidemic of misuse of singular, first-person pronouns.

Somehow, people have gotten it into their heads that "me" is a terrible thing to say, and that one ought always to say "I" instead.

For instance, there is an utter pandemic of captioning photos as "John and I" or "Mary and I." It happens so frequently that it is actually becoming normal and accepted, which is just not right.

OK, think about it: Would one ever take a picture of oneself and caption it with, simply, "I" ? I hope not! Clearly, if one is standing there alone in the picture, one would write "me" for the caption. Unless, of course, one were a quasi-educated person who had a grasping need to try to sound smarter than one truly was and thus expose oneself as a grammatical ignoramus in the face of anybody who knows grammar, which is not much of a threat because, obviously, hardly anybody does. Please forgive me. I know that sounds mean spirited. There are obviously many, many people who misuse this construction simply because they were taught incorrectly. I bear them no ill will. The ones that irk me are: (1) English teachers who teach this incorrectly to their students, (2) elementary-aged children who think they are smarter than I am and attempt to set me straight on how to misuse singular first person pronouns, and (3) basically anybody who insists that incorrect usage is correct when the subject arises. Let me say this once more: I have no gripe with people who are just doing the best they can after being taught incorrectly; my only gripe is with people who smugly insist that they are right when they are wrong.

Here is the litmus test that is so simple that anyone can use it:

IF, WHEN ONE IS WRITING A SENTENCE, ONE REMOVES THE EXTRA PEOPLE FROM THE ISSUE, AND AT THAT POINT THE CORRECT WORD IS "ME," THEN IT REMAINS "ME" WHEN ONE ADDS THE OTHER PERSON OR PEOPLE BACK INTO THE SENTENCE.

EXAMPLES

Correct: "My mother gave a gift to me."
Also correct: "My mother gave a gift to my sister and me."
Incorrect: "My mother gave a gift to I."
Also incorrect: "My mother gave a gift to my sister and I." Believe it or not... This is INCORRECT!

The reason why photo captions should generally be "me" rather than "I" is this: it is, generally speaking, a shortened form of "This is me," or "This is a picture of me." One would never say, "This is I." Neither should one ever say, "This is Frankie and I." It's OK to say "me." One should say "me" when it is appropriate.

I actually saw someone use the (INCORRECT) construction: "The caterer provided an excellent cake for Ronald and I's wedding." Seriously. She didn't simply speak this, making a verbal mistake.  This is what someone wrote. The problem is getting completely out of hand. There is a singular, first-person, possessive pronoun, and it is not "I's." "Ise" is a racial slur and sounds like dialogue lifted from the movie Gone with the Wind. One used to hear the correct form of the possessive personal pronoun used fairly often, before all this ignorant, pseudo-intellectual, hyper-corrective "I" business got into swing. It is (drum roll, please)... "my." The correct way to say, "The caterer provided an excellent cake for Ronald and I's wedding," is, very simply, "The caterer provided an excellent cake for Ronald's and my wedding." That's slightly awkward, although basically correct. Preferable ways of saying it would be: "The caterer provided an excellent cake for Ronald and me at our wedding," or (imagine this), "The caterer provided an excellent cake for our wedding."

Understanding grammar means knowing the difference between a noun that is an object and a noun that is a subject. This skill is enhanced when one studies a foreign language that uses noun cases, but it can be learned by even a single-language speaker who is willing to apply the above litmus test.

The subject form of the personal pronoun is "I." One uses this form when the person in question is doing the action of the sentence; for instance, "I went for a long walk today." This remains true when it is more than one person walking, and it is also considered polite, and therefore correct, to put oneself humbly after others, so the correct usage is, "My husband and I went for a long walk today."

Oddly, the people who are always taking about how Dereck stopped by to see "Jamal and I" (litmus: Did he stop by to see I? No! He stopped by to see me! Therefore, he also stopped by to see Jamal and me!)--the same people who make this mistake often use "me" when they should not: Me and Jamal want some ice cream. No, no, no! THAT is where one correctly uses "I." Only Cookie Monster says, "Me want cookie." Everyone else says, "I want a cookie." This is the proper place to use the subject form of the first person pronoun: I. Ergo, "Jamal and I would like some ice-cream."

One uses the object form ("me") when the noun being replaced is the object of the action being done:

Correct: He kicked me out of the apartment.
Also correct: He kicked Sally and me out of the apartment.
Incorrect: He kicked I out of the apartment.
Also incorrect: He kicked Sally and I out of the apartment.

The same is true whenever the pronoun is the object of a preposition.
Prepositions are words that can fill in the following blank: "The knight jumped ______ the horse." They do not have to make rational sense, but they must fit. Therefore, prepositions are words like: on, under, over, around, through, beside, for, against, to, from... etc.

Correct: to me
Also correct: to Shannon and me
Incorrect: to I
Also incorrect: to Shannon and I
Correct: For me
Also correct: For Laura and me
Incorrect: For I
Also incorrect: For Laura and I

It is not a sin to use a word that starts with the letter m. In fact, it is often perfectly correct. This is true more often than most people with college educations realize. The thing that really gripes me is when English teachers get it wrong.

5 comments:

Max said...

"For Laura and I" could be correct if used like this:
For Laura and I are the only two people left on the face of the earth.

Of course, then I am starting my sentence with a preposition, which could yield another grammar lesson.

Ruth said...

Actually, in that example you are not using "for" as a preposition, but rather as a conjunction meaning "because." It is perfectly correct in this instance, but it does not disprove my thesis; it only points out that I may need to clarify that some words that we use as conjunctions may also have additional definitions that qualify them as other parts of speech.

Ruth said...

OOOPS. In the above comment I said: "some words that we use as conjunctions may also have additional definitions that qualify them as other parts of speech." Which is true, but I meant to say: "some words that we use as PREPOSITIONS may also have additional definitions that qualify them as other parts of speech."

shannon said...

I'm actually pretty sure that Max's model sentence is incomplete. It is, what we used to call in seventh grade, a pregnant clause.

Of course, it could just be used as a fragment in poetry. Poetry breaks all the rules.

Ruth said...

They actually taught you about pregnant clauses in seventh grade? That is amazing. Who was your teacher? Prose breaks rules as well as poetry. And yes, Max's sentence is more artistic than actually correct. However, I don't think his point was so much to show a truly complete sentence as to show a viable example of a correct usage of "For ____ and I." And the only way that phrase can ever be correct is when "for" means "because" rather than one of the many propositional meanings of "for."