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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. As for Stephen Fry, why are grammatical knowledge and correct usage in the appropriate contexts incompatible with creativity in the use of language, such as Dylan Thomas exhibited in “Under Milkwood”? It seems to me to be largely a false dilemma, a false either/or.

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    1. I agree. There are plenty of good poets and lyricists who are able to do amazing, creative work and still be grammatically correct. 🙂

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  2. If to be a pragmatist is good, and to be a stickler is bad, then what about a hypercorrector? What is the way forward when he or she “corrects” us when we say, for example, “John and Sid will play against Sid and me”. If we are told directly where we are going “wrong”, and that it is “I or myself”, then we can reply, almost equally directly, with the facts of the matter; but it will be at the risk of alienating the person. Faced, instead, with a barrage of “correct” examples, apparently supplied in the hope that, sooner or later, we will “learn”, it is even more difficult. If we respond, even in the nicest way possible, the hypercorrector is likely to be a mortified. It may well be that, in any case, he or she will not be open to reason.

    This kind of thing is common over here in the UK, if not in the US, so it is not always possible simply to be pragmatic.

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  3. Steven Fry has my vote in that he advocates that it’s alright to break the rules as long as you do it nicely. The bell that rings on this topic was the Robin Williams’ character in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ answer to the question, “What is the purpose of language?” It was not, as one might expect, to communicate, but to woo women: a far more demanding task.
    So when pedantry overwhelms me, such as when faced with a split infinitive, or ending a sentence on a preposition, I ask. ‘Which reads more eloquently.’ That seems to work because feedback from honest peers is that I’m easy to read and appear, if one can literally appear, educated. So far so good, but there is a corollary: what if grates? If it grates I go to war and nothing drives me more furiously into battle as that damned ‘gotten.’ What on Earth is gotten? The past tense of get is got. If I go to get, and get something, then I got it. If you want to reflect upon getting something then choose another word. There are thousands of word; why do we restrict ourselves to a few? Having caught a cold is million time more eloquent than having gotten one. Having fetched a ball, or a piece of cheese, far outranks having gotten… almost anything.

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

    John and myself went to the store.

    No, no,no, no. Having sorted out I and me, we now come to “myself.” Take this example:

    John and myself went to the store.

    Physician heal thyself.

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    1. Actually, “gotten” is a perfectly acceptable word. It’s the past participial form of “got” and is thus best used in verb phrases such as “having gotten” and “had gotten.” It dates back to the 14th century (at least that far back, according to the OED), so it can’t be discounted as a slovenly modern coinage. You’re correct that if you go get something, you got it (that’s past tense). But having completed the getting, you have gotten it. That’s the past participle. Some do shorten the past participle to “got” (though it’s always struck me as a British thing). Whether having caught or having gotten a cold is more eloquent is I think a matter of taste, though I prefer caught in this case along with you. I think you’re also right that “having sorted out” is a more direct usage than “having gotten sorted out.” By using the more wordy “having gotten,” I’ve disobeyed the rule to omit needless words. Of course, there’s something else at play here: I’m being a little folksy in this post, and to me, “having gotten” is a little more folksy than the drier, if more efficient, “having sorted,” so in this case it served a purpose. All that said, I applaud your impulse to choose words carefully and not fall back on tired ones.

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