The Grammarphobia Blog

An object lesson from the Oval Office

Read Pat and Stewart’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times:

The I’s Have It

By PATRICIA T. O’CONNER

and STEWART KELLERMAN

WHEN President Obama speaks before Congress and the nation tonight, he will be facing some of his toughest critics.

Grammar junkies.

Since his election, the president has been roundly criticized by bloggers for using “I” instead of “me” in phrases like “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” or “the main disagreement with John and I” or “graciously invited Michelle and I.”

The rule here, according to conventional wisdom, is that we use “I” as a subject and “me” as an object, whether the pronoun appears by itself or in a twosome. Thus every “I” in those quotes ought to be a “me.”

So should the president go stand in a corner of the Oval Office (if he can find one) and contemplate the error of his ways? Not so fast.

For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to use either “I” or “me” as the object of a verb or preposition, especially after “and.” Literature is full of examples. Here’s Shakespeare, in “The Merchant of Venice”: “All debts are cleared between you and I.” And here’s Lord Byron, complaining to his half-sister about the English town of Southwell, “which, between you and I, I wish was swallowed up by an earthquake, provided my eloquent mother was not in it.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about “I” and “me.” The first kvetch cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage came from a commencement address in 1846. In 1869, Richard Meade Bache included it in his book “Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech.”

Why did these 19th-century wordies insist “I” is “I” and “me” is “me”? They were probably influenced by Latin, with its rigid treatment of subject and object pronouns. For whatever reason, their approach stuck — at least in the rule books.

Then, why do so many scofflaws keep using “I” instead of “me”? Perhaps it’s because they were scolded as children for saying things like “Me want candy” instead of “I want candy,” so they began to think “I” was somehow more socially acceptable. Or maybe it’s because they were admonished against “it’s me.” Anybody who’s had “it is I” drummed into his head is likely to avoid “me” on principle, even when it’s right. The term for this linguistic phenomenon is “hypercorrection.”

A related crime that Mr. Obama stands accused of is using “myself” to dodge the “I”-versus-“me” issue, as when he spoke last November of “a substantive conversation between myself and the president.” The standard practice here is to use “myself” for emphasis or to refer to the speaker (“I’ll do it myself”), not merely as a substitute for “me.” But some language authorities accept a looser usage, and point out that “myself” has been regularly used in place of “me” since Anglo-Saxon days.

Our 44th president isn’t the first occupant of the White House to suffer from pronounitis. Nos. 43 and 42 were similarly afflicted. The symptoms: “for Laura and I,” “invited Hillary and I,” and so on. (For the record, Nos. 41 and 40 had no problem with the objective case, regularly using “Barbara and me” or “Nancy and me” when appropriate.)

But an educated speaker is expected to keep his pronouns in line. Here, then, is a tip, Mr. President. Nobody chooses the wrong pronoun when it’s standing on its own. If you’re tempted to say “for Michelle and I” in tonight’s speech, just mentally omit Michelle (sorry, Mrs. Obama), and you’ll get it right. And no one will get on your case.

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman are the authors of the forthcoming “Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.”