Etymology Grammar Usage

To me, or not to me

Q: A comment on a New York Times blog begins this way: “To me, the most important ….” Is it possible to start an English sentence with “To me …”?  I am German, but an American friend told me that most grammarians would say it is, at best, colloquial. What do you think?

A: There are two issues involved here: beginning a sentence with “To me …” and introducing an opinion with “to me ….”

Nobody would object to using “To me …” as an ordinary prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence.

For instance, a sentence like “To me they taste the same” is no less legitimate than “They taste the same to me.”

The prepositional phrase here has an adverbial function; it modifies the verb “taste,” not the entire sentence.

The sentence on the Times blog, however, uses the prepositional phrase to introduce an opinion. In effect, it modifies the entire sentence.

A great many people, when stating an opinion, begin with “to me ….” This is probably an abbreviated form of “It seems to me that … ” or of the more telescoped “Seems to me ….”

All of them convey the same meaning: “In my opinion ….”

In our opinion, introducing an opinion with “to me …” (whether at the beginning of a sentence or a clause inside it) sounds colloquial—that is, more suited to casual than to formal occasions.

So it’s probably not a good idea to use it in formal writing. But no one would fault you for using “to me …” this way in speech, especially casual speech, or informal writing.

Even the moderately abbreviated “seems to me” is labeled colloquial by the Oxford English Dictionary.

As an example of this usage, the OED cites a sentence from John Strange Winter’s novel Bootles’ Children (1888): “Seems to me women get like dogs—they get their lessons pretty well fixed in their minds after a time.”

(Boy, does that sound sexist! Yet the pseudonymous Winter was actually Henrietta Eliza Vaughan Stannard.)

The OED doesn’t even get into the shorter “to me …” but no doubt the dictionary would find it colloquial too.

It seems to us that starting an opinion at the beginning of a sentence with “Seems to me …” isn’t quite as casual as starting it with “To me ….”

Perhaps the more compressed the expression, the less formal it seems. At least that’s our opinion.

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