English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Why “lucky me,” not “lucky I”?

Q: Why does the expression “lucky me” have an object pronoun?

A: Yes, it’s always “lucky me,” not “lucky I.”

But why is the pronoun in the objective (or accusative) case rather than the nominative?

The short answer is that a personal pronoun without a clear grammatical role—one that isn’t a subject or an object—is generally in the objective case.

As the linguist Arnold Zwicky explains, the basic rule is “nominative for subjects of finite clauses, accusative otherwise.”

(A finite clause is one with a subject and a tensed verb, as in “I feel lucky.”)

“This rule has to be understood literally,” Zwicky adds, “only subjects of finite clauses; things understood, or interpreted, as subjects of such clauses don’t count.”

In a Dec. 28, 2004, post on the Language Log, he writes, “So free-standing pronouns are accusative, even when they’re interpreted as subjects: Who did that? Me.”

This is especially true in speech or informal writing.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1972), Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik write:

“The objective case form is preferred in familiar style in verbless sentences, e.g., ‘Who’s there?’ — ‘Me.’ ”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says this practice and similar ones “are generally accepted by commentators as historically justified.”

The usage guide adds that “they are most likely to be found in speech and writing of a relaxed personal or conversational style.”

Merriam-Webster’s gives several examples from 20th-century authors, including this one from a letter written by the poet Robert Frost on July 15, 1941: “Me, I am in transition from one college to another.”

Linguists and grammarians often refer to these free-standing pronouns as unmarked, undifferentiated, or default pronouns.

The objective case is generally used whether the verbless pronouns appear alone, as in the examples above, or with an adjective, like “poor me,” “lucky him” or “silly them.”

In the 1500s the pronoun “me” began showing up in various uses “without definite syntactical relation to the context,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest example is from the Earl of Surrey’s translation (sometime before 1547) of the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Aime [Ay me], wyth rage and furyes.”

And here’s an example from an exchange between Duke Frederick and Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (believed written in 1599):

“Duk: And get you from our Court. / Ros: Me Vncle.”

Around the same time, according to the OED, “me” showed up in phrases “premodified by an adjective.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Thomas Phaer’s 1558 translation of the first seven books of the Aeneid: “Where now away withdraw you wery me?”

This clearer example is from a 1580 translation by Philip Sidney of the Psalms of David: “How many ones there be / That all against poor me / Their numerous strength redouble.”

And here’s a citation from Pericles, Prince of Tyre, which the OED attributes to Shakespeare and dates to 1609: “To … make a conquest of vnhappie mee.” (Some scholars believe the play was co-written by Shakespeare and George Wilkins.)

As for “lucky me,” the OED says it expresses, “often ironically, acknowledgement of one’s own good fortune.”

The earliest Oxford example is from an 1821 issue of the Port Folio, a Philadelphia magazine: “I have seen, lucky me, what you all want to see.”

The most recent cite is from Paradise, a 1995 novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian writer living in the UK:

“As if your noisy dreams are not enough, you now hear music as well. I have two crazies on my hands, lucky me.”

Getting back to the technical side, the linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says the objective case “is the default in English, and can be used anywhere except in the subject of a tensed verb.”

In The Sense of Style (2014), Pinker gives many examples of usage, including “What, me get a tattoo?” and “Molly will be giving the first lecture, me the second.”

The linguist David Denison, agrees, saying, “In general the objective forms have become the unmarked choice for personal pronouns, now used by default unless the pronoun has a particular syntactic function.”

In a 1996 paper, “The Case of the Unmarked Pronoun,” Denison gives as an example this exchange between Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley in Jane Austen’s novel Emma:

“ ‘You seem determined to think ill of him.’

“ ‘Me! – not at all,’ replied Mr. Knightley, rather displeased.”

And, as Denison points out, “Anything Mr. Knightley says (I feel) must have been fully standard for Jane Austen.”

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