Hark! Who goes there?….
August 12th, 2010
august-12
Hark! Who goes there?

Read this blog for the correct answer. I have complained in this space before about language that bugs me, especially increasingly incorrect English usage, and I know I will complain again. But here’s the situation that prompted today’s venting. Maybe some good will come out of this.

The other day a colleague—smart, lively, funny, charming, someone I consider a friend, not just another nice academic—was in my office, telling me a story. I was listening hard, amused by the details. But then she dropped the dreaded pronoun bomb and I suddenly started to feel nauseated, the bomb’s effects working on my breathing like plaster dust.  This is what she said (names changed to protect the guilty): “Well, then Susan dropped by with a gift for John and I, and we were so happy to see her.”

JOHN AND I?

My head was exploding. I was going to pull a Mel Gibson, but I am in better control of my emotions and I wasn’t drinking, and so instead I just faked it, pretended I hadn’t heard it, that my eyeballs weren’t actually turning inward and staring at my soul for guidance about what to do next. How could such a stupid thing come out of such a sweet mouth? But my friend is not alone. This particular form of pronoun error is spreading like NDM-1. These days, many fine and even not-so-fine educated people are confusing I and me in their simple sentences, and I fear there’s no going back. I hate to say it, but I have heard President Obama misusing these pronouns—the Big O, the guy who graduated in the top 10% from Harvard Law. Maybe he was hardwired to substitute I for me when he was using drugs at Columbia. Sorry, Barack, there are no excuses. The leader of the Free World should know better. I bet President Clinton knows what the difference is—that is, if it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

I know we all use pronouns based on what we think sounds right, but as any decent grammar handbook will advise, this is not always a good strategy. More to the point, why does John and I sound better than the correct expression: John and me? It shouldn’t. It should sound like chalk screeching across a blackboard, like cats mating, like Mariah Carey straining for a high note. It should sound just plain unnatural.

How can this sentence possibly sound right?

My sister and her husband are driving to the cottage with he and I.

Gak! What is going on here? Why, o Lord, aren’t the proper pronouns, him and me, the obvious objects of the verb? There is room for only two subjects in that sentence—my sister and her husband. No other subject can get into the car to make that drive to the cottage. The grammar handbooks say that the best way to check yourself is to play with the alternatives, or reverse the sentence. Try saying: Susan dropped by with for a gift for I. Does that sound dumb, or what? What I can’t figure out is why having John involved makes one reflexively change the me to an I. Is John such a game changer? Does he actually have the power to reverse the course of good grammar? Anyhow, you can’t suddenly check yourself in the middle of speaking. You have to know the difference, as our mothers always scolded us, between right and wrong.

My husband tells me it’s a form of over correction. People nowadays think John and I sounds better, sounds learned, erudite.  The killing irony is that it’s wrong. To almost anyone born before the Beatles came to North America it sounds really dumb. Another theory is that people born after the recording of “She Loves You, Ya Ya” have an aversion to using the pronoun me, making them sound like babies: me me me…. That birthday cake/toy/DVD is for me, me, me.

But, hey, all of you pronoun abusers out there, it’s not really all about me, and I don’t mean I.

To return to Hamlet’s question, Who goes there?

It is I, not me, never me—except if I am on the receiving end, as the object of an action, and especially if Susan is the one who goes there, dropping by with a gift for John and me.

NG

Dr. Noreen Golfman is Professor of English and Dean of Graduate Studies. Her post secondary education included study at McGill, University of Alberta, and University of Western Ontario. She has been teaching and writing in the areas of Canadian literature and film studies for most of her career. She is the president of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, founding director of the annual St. John's International Women's Film Festival, and director of the MUN Cinema Series. Dr. Golfman's blog 'Postcards From the Edge' will be updated every Thursday.

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