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In 1997, singer Paula Cole released a song entitled “I Don’t Want to Wait” that featured this jim-dandy of a phrase:

So open up your morning light
and say a little prayer for I

I suspect that there aren’t many native speakers of English who would say such a thing in their natural speech. It just sounds wrong. Of course there also happens to be an actual rule that Cole is breaking here. She’s using the subjective case of a pronoun in place of the objective case.

Whowhatnow?

Subjective case and objective case are, when so labeled, kind of a mystery to a lot of people, but if you, like me, cringe to hear or read Cole’s song, you’ve picked up a natural sense of the rule, even if you can’t articulate the rule’s details.

In a nutshell, there are certain pronouns (pronouns, recall, are words like “I,” “he,” “she,” and “they”) that must act as subjects and certain pronouns that must act as objects. The subject is the part of a sentence corresponding to who is performing the action of a sentence. The object is the part of a sentence corresponding to what entity in the sentence the subject acted upon, with, or for.

“I” is always a subject. So “I” may say a little prayer, but you can never, ever say a little prayer for “I.” You can, however, say a little prayer for “me,” since “me” is always an object. And even if you can’t articulate the rule, you innately know the rule, for you would never be caught dead saying, in earnest, “me say a little prayer.”

Now, many many intelligent people still get tripped up when using sentences with compound objects, and this is understandable, since there are more parts of speech to juggle. For example:

Who will go to the store with Mary and I?

Who will go to the store with Mary and me?

Which one is the correct usage? Because they spent their whole childhoods being taught not to say “Mary and me went to the store,” people often err in the other direction by insisting upon “I” in the object as well. The trick to figuring this one out is to omit the extra object:

Who will go to the store with I?

Who will go to the store with me?

As surely as Cole’s lyric sounds like a dud, the first sentence here sounds like a dud, and so we know that when we add Mary back into the equation, we want to settle on the “me” version of the sentence.

Having hopefully gotten “I” and “me” sorted out, we now come to “myself.” Take this example:

John and myself went to the store.

People use this I suppose to avoid “me” and to sound what seems more elevated or formal, but it’s incorrect usage. “Myself” is a reflexive pronoun, meaning that it is used only when making reference back to the subject “I.” There are a couple of ways we do this:

I myself don’t like the smell of rhinoceros dung.

I have never given myself a wedgie.

In the first sentence, “myself” is wholly optional and adds emphasis. In the second, “myself” is acting as an object, but note that it it refers back to the subject “I.” You would never ever say:

The rhinoceros gave a wedgie to myself.

There is, in this sentence, no subject “I” for “myself” to refer back to. So, if you yourself wish to use “myself” in a sentence, double check to make sure you are doing so either for emphasis or to explain that you are performing an action on yourself. This pronoun is not a fancier way of saying “I” or “me.”

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  1. Beautiful!

    It drives me a little crazy when I hear someone say, “Me and Mary our going to the store.” That has become almost acceptable, it seems.

    Years ago my mom taught me that trick to omit the additional object. I’m so thankful she did. I’ll usually check it by using both: “Who will go to the store with me?” and “Who will go to the store with Mary?” It has become a habit.

    Thank you for providing these clear and concise directions!

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  2. This is about what I say to students – in fact just last week – when I’m teaching personal pronouns. Including….when you were little your mom always said….

    Hope this hits a WIDE audience. It’s certainly needed. Thanks!

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  3. Much needed reminded for those who never learned from parents or inept teachers.
    Now try convincing people to use the rule “subjective mood contrary to fact”, i.e. If I were….not, if I was.

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    1. The term “subjective” as you’ve used it refers to the nominative case of a pronoun, the case used for sentence subjects and predicate nominatives. When you refer to the mood of verbs, the correct term is “subjunctive,” not “subjective.” You have your pronoun and verb usage confused. And, yes, one should use subjunctive mood for statements contrary to fact or for a wish, as in “If I were you,” “if he were you,” “I wish I were you,” “if he wish for something,” or “if it [or they] be true.” Subjunctive mood affects first and third person singular and plural in present tense, and third person singular in present perfect tense. One almost never hears this mood used correctly. In fact, it can be challenging to find correct use of indicative mood for statements of fact among many users of our language.

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  4. Of course, there’s also the question of whether this really actually matters at all or whether we grammar killjoys are just being pedantic. If successful communication of information is in fact what matters in language, then this weird objective/subjective case niggle — which doesn’t matter nearly as much in a language like English as it does in a language like Latin that uses inflection rather than word order and other cues to specify parts of speech — is not really pragmatically an issue at all. In most cases, the use of “me” for “I” (or vice versa) does not in fact cloud meaning for speakers/readers of English, so it’s debatable whether or not the distinction is actually useful.

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    1. Rules are there for a reason and should therefore be followed. I don’t just say that for the sake of argument. Clarity in language, written or spoken, would not exist if not for grammatical rules. Calling them irrelevant simply because someone is too lazy to follow them or too ignorant to know them does not negate their importance. Being too lazy can’t easily be addressed by anyone but the offender; but education, which seems to be the point of this article, can take care of ignorance.

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      1. Yes! It reminds me of running a red light because everyone’s doing it these days.
        I believe the teacher, if not himself lazy, can help the student overcome even laziness. Perhaps the answer lies, at least in part, in the diligence of the teacher. How many of us grew up with lazy or stubborn error we later dropped because of determined teaching?
        Think of a winning sports team: Perfection in execution can become a desirable and achievable goal if the student can see the importance, if the teacher can see the importance.
        The populating our colleges becomes more difficult, due to refusing to include the lazy, so we simply change the language. Isn’t that it?

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  5. Thank you for this post! I shall recommend it to several people who misuse “myself” . . . Do you have anything on the proper uses of “its” and “it’s”?

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    1. “It’s” is a verb contraction meaning “it is.” The apostrophe in this case replaces the missing letter “i.” The apostrophe has absolutely nothing to do here with showing possession, or ownership. “Its” (with no apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun (or possessive adjective–however you want to think of it), which in this case actually shows possession, as in “The cat licked its paw.” This may seem counter-intuitive, which probably explains why so many people confuse the two words. They are used to the use of the apostrophe with nouns to show possession–as in “Kat’s post” or “Tom’s book.”

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      1. A handy thing that may help you remember “its” as a possessive in spite of the missing apostrophe: Other possessive pronouns like “my,” “your,” and “their” don’t have apostrophes either.

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  6. Forget grammar for a minute and think in terms of me and I, or, if you like, me, myself and I. There is a whole school of sociological thought (Symbolic Interactionism) that details the referents “me” and “I”. Perhaps William James began that school of thought because he published some fundamental work in that area which predated Symbolic Interactionism. I point this out because if you replace the concepts of “me” and “I” with being what is not = me, while not being what is = I, then you get being what is not while not being what is–as the subject performing an action, i.e., you get my postaday blog. Thanks for posting this Me, Myself and I post. Take care.

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  7. I thought you would like to know that this really helped me.
    Your right, I were taught to say I and not me, so I just wonder what people would think when they heard me saying ” John & me” instead of John & ” I”?

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  8. This post is splendid! All too often we as writers do one thing and we as readers are like totally different beings considering our criticism of another’s written work. It is not like I love grammar or more aptly math with words and parts of speech; however, understanding grammar certainly makes for better writing.

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    1. The funny thing is that I actually agree with Fry. I have dueling prescriptive and descriptive impulses. The prescriptivist wants to write posts like this article, while the descriptivist leaves comments (see a few comments back) expressing some doubt as to the real need for such pedantry. 🙂

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      1. That’s awesome. The animation alone is worth a watch! But Fry’s message causes me to consider how “prescriptivist” I act (BTW, I’ve never used that word before. Thanks Daryl!).

        I too, struggle with where to draw the line. I like to think that I speak and write correctly … whatever that truly means. But I don’t always get it right, I know that. No doubt that some of the readers here could tear this comment apart. There are degrees of correctness depending on context.

        Along with this, I also enjoyed what Fry said about the appearance of caring.

        I’ve worked in the sign industry. I get a kick out of correcting signs that present blatant errors, even if it’s only in my mind! Sometimes it appears as though the creator just didn’t care enough to “look it up.” And the message can be more easily misunderstood or, at least, take longer to discern.

        Lastly (whew), I’ll use singing a song as a metaphor for caring. I’ve known some folks who sing on pitch and others who don’t; yet are able to do so. They just don’t really care about doing so. But if the song is sung without the melody is it recognizable as it was intended? Is the message the same?

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      2. I’ve seen this video before, and I love it for multiple reasons. To begin with, it’s one of the best uses of kinetic typography that I have ever seen, but more importantly, (despite my earlier comment,) I am likewise inclined to agree with Fry. The context of what is being said is often more important than the grammar behind it. His example of five items or less versus five items or fewer is a perfect example of this; however, I disagree that the difference between disinterested and uninterested is as easily overcome by context, but perhaps now I’m the one being overly pedantic.

        Whether or not proper use of me, myself, and I (or any grammatical rule, for that matter) is pedantic is irrelevant. What is relevant is the manner in which the information is provided. Is the information provided in a manner that is educational, or is it provided simply to show off one’s linguistic prowess? An informative post regarding proper grammar, such as this one, while possibly pedantic in nature, is still worthwhile and necessary. Calling someone (or some sign) out for having poor grammar just to feel good about being “intelligent” tends to make one look like a royal a…er… regal donkey…(yeah, that’s it…regal donkey…) and is completely unnecessary.

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      3. @PCguyIV Regarding your reference to “calling out,” I agree. Some days my “Regal Donkey-ism” wins! And I verbalize my “intelligence,” thus reinforcing my, well, “regal” status. Other days I may merely correct, as I said, “… in my mind.”

        However, concerning the medium, signage, it’s important to get the message across quickly, clearly and for the intended purpose, otherwise the reason for which the sign was created is moot. So, correctness can correlate with effectiveness, and income.

        Motive is huge. Being pendantic, or not, is more of a challenge for some than others. In certain situations, as Fry says, “… I never join in.” So, like so many things, it’s a choice. And granted, sometimes I choose poorly (but I’m working on it!).

        Thanks. I like your style.

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  9. Thank you for explaning this!
    Doing it right instinctively isn’t as much fun as knowing WHY it’s right! (especially for a non-native speaker)

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  10. I, as usual, have been given a needed refresher lesson in English grammar. Thank you, I look forward to your posts because after a few decades, you do forget the more subtle rules of writing.

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  11. Beautifully put!
    In high-school, When Destiny’s Child came out with the song “Say My Name”, I cringed every time I heard Beyonce sing the line, “What’s the problem, babe? Never had a girl like I?”
    I couldn’t understand why whoever wrote the song couldn’t have used, “What’s the problem, babe? Never had a girl so fly?”
    It still haunts me to this day.

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  12. Thanks Daryl for another great lesson. Other bloggers and me think your grammar aplomb is impressive. 😉 (Or even worse, Your grammar aplomb is thought well of by other bloggers and I.)

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  13. Thank you for clarifying! I grew up in a home of Educators and was always corrected, thus I am very aware of this aspect of our language and often shake my head with a “tsk tsk” when I hear something egregiously wrong. My Mom will LOVE this article, as she is more adamant about “tsk tsk”-ing than I am…or me am…? 🙂
    But even I over think and get confused sometimes…and, yes, I’ve been known to call Mom to make sure I’ve written a sentence correctly!!

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  14. I think taking out the extra object is the best trick ever. Thanks for revealing what Paula Cole was actually saying. That never even occurred to me, and I may now have to cringe myself every time I hear it. Did I use it correctly there?

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  15. Huzzah! for helping people learn what is correct. Now: let’s tackle the “who” problem. In newspapers, magazines and on TV and radio, I see and hear “I saw the teacher THAT went to class” Teachers are people! You should use “WHO”! “I know the airline pilot WHO landed in the Hudson River.” “The Congressman WHO voted ‘no’ is wrong.” “John is the one WHO stole that bike.” Please reserve “that” for non-persons.
    And, did you know that “mauve” rhymes with “stove”? Look it up!
    It’s not really necessary for the English language to evolve due to ignorance!

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    1. Actually, the relative pronoun “that” can be used correctly for persons, animals, and things. As you note, however, the relative pronoun “who” is preferable for persons and sounds better to a trained ear.

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  16. Good tip on the compound object usage. I’m a recovering anal grammarist myself (and yet always, always learning). But seriously, if a rhinocerous ever gave me a wedgie, I’d just be thankful to still be speaking at all. 🙂

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