I thought it was just me – along with a handful of similarly disposed curmudgeonly retired English teachers – whose teeth hurt and ears bled when encountering the never-ending, blatant and I’m quite sure un-American abuse of the personal pronouns “I” and “me.” How can we call ourselves civilized people while tossing off with a benign shrug such base grammatical effrontery?
The sad answer, of course, is that most of us don’t even notice. And if we do, we don’t care.
I was prepared to contemplate the moral collapse of our beautiful language all alone in my fussbudget cave when, lo and behold, there appeared a segment on the wonderful and ever-so-literate “CBS Sunday Morning” news program. I remember it precisely. It was at 8:14 a.m. on Feb. 23. There came essayist Bill Flannigan with a two-minute presentation on when to use “I” and when to use “me.” And he was funny.
Bill Flannigan, you are my new grammar hero. And in so elevating the matter to national television – and on a Sunday morning, a godly time of the week – you have given solace and hope to those of us out in the wilderness. I am encouraged and soldier on.
It was interesting that Flannigan, editorial director of MTV Networks and executive vice president of Viacom Music Group, materialized to lift my morale the same week that I received an email from a friend, attached to which was a 10 Signs You are a Grammar Nerd list, the original source of which I don’t know. I loved it, and I am guilty of all of the signs, except for those referring to activities I don’t participate in: Facebook, Twitter and texting. However, if I did text, I’m pretty sure I’d capitalize and use standard spelling and proper punctuation (Sign No. 1).
But the sound of a double negative does indeed make me cringe. I do mentally correct the books and magazines I read and do hold the belief that interesting writing and correct grammar are not mutually exclusive. I know the difference between affect and effect and most definitely feel moved to correct badly written public signs and notices, though I hold myself back from actually doing it.
And yes I do have an opinion about the Oxford comma (Sign No. 6) and even know what the Oxford (serial) comma is without having to look it up first. I don’t know if that’s a laudable thing or a sad thing, but I do have to own it.
And so in the spirit of renewed evangelism, I address those two aforementioned pesky pronouns. As we (should have) learned in school, the I-me conundrum is simple really. Consider it in terms of a list: “Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto and I/me are going out to dinner.” Or even if you start the sentence with yourself, which you shouldn’t, you might say: “I/me, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy are going …” Let me offer two other examples. “Please give the pistachio ice cream cones to Goofy, Pluto and I/me.” “The ice cream truck hit Minnie and I/me.” What’s right?
Take out all the other names and just leave yourself in the sentence. Would you say, “Me am going out to dinner,” or, “I am going out to dinner”? There’s your answer. Or as Bill Flannigan said, you’d only choose “me” if you were Tarzan. But it occurs to me that Tarzan has an excuse, what with being raised by apes in the jungle and all. It works the same with the ice cream sentences. Give the ice cream cone to me. The ice cream truck hit me. You know what’s right when you hear it. Or at least I hope you do.
If you want it in technical-speak, “I” is used when it is the subject of the verb; “me” is used when it is the object of the verb or preposition. Or just consider the list scenario and go from there.
OK, OK, I know language is a fluid thing; it needs to breathe and grow to fit changing times. I have no philosophical quarrel with that. We create new words all the time. Usage changes. Meanings are altered. I get it. I take a few liberties myself, mostly with sentence fragments and using way too many dashes. But when change messes with comprehension, when it dumbs us down, then I most emphatically object to shrugging it off.
And shrugging it off is not what the little self-appointed, self-important and self-serving citizens army of grammar police – among whom I happily number myself – is inclined to do. We lonely few once again have a spring in our step and the conviction to forge ahead.
All we needed was a little encouragement. Thank you, Bill Flannigan.