General Question

susanc's avatar

How about "I" and "me"?

Asked by susanc (16107points) October 6th, 2007

Here’s a sentence: Ella took Ben and me to the opera.
Here’s how a lot of people say it, and this seems to me to be a recent development: Ella took Ben and I to the opera.
What’s the deal with that?

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14 Answers

bob's avatar

In general, the trend is to drop any distinctions we can unless doing so will impede our ability to be understood. That’s as neutral as I can put it; personally, I think we lose precision as we lose these distinctions—here, between subjective and objective pronouns.

As for this case in particular: my theory is that some English teachers emphasize using “I” so much that people just automatically replace “me” with “I” in any phrase like “Dave and me.” The English teachers told them not to do something, but didn’t explain the difference between the objective and subjective case. So we just know that saying “Ben and me” sounds wrong.

susanc's avatar

So, in other words, students will do the opposite of what teachers don’t explain… that sounds fair, really.

There’s another example of “I” vs “me”: “Me and my girlfriend went downtown”. I ask people (when in a fussy mood) to take out the “and (the other person)” and see if it still works, and they generally say, “Well, the rule is different for two people”.
So I give up. Me and my dog are going for a walk, and after that her owner is going to give her and I some lunch.

Perchik's avatar

I don’t think I ever had a legitimate grammar lesson that defined the subjective and objective cases, because they try to teach grammar early in school. Therefore the teachers just said “Remove the other person/people and see if it makes sense.” I’m not sure on the exact rules of the subjective/objective case, but saying “Ella took Ben and I to the opera” sounds right to me. (Even though that’s not how I was taught).

I think most of the time, it’s just a sound thing, and we’ve been trained to like how “I” sounds in sentences.

christybird's avatar

I was a linguistics major in college and if I learned one thing during those four years, it is that language changes! Can you imagine if someone put Plato in a time machine and he was forced to get around Athens today with his ancient Greek? (It would be “Greek” to him, ha ha.)

Language changes are inevitable, and I think throughout time people have always gnashed their teeth and pulled their hair out over how their language is going to pot. But most of the time, I don’t think there are any inherent “good” or “bad” qualities to language change. For example, did you know the word “apron” used to be “napron”? But many people heard “a napron” as “an apron” and started using it that way. Now, I bet at the time, there were people who were FURIOUS about this – it’s not “apron” it’s “napron,” darn it! But does it really matter? Not really.

Another example: English used to have a sound made in the back of the throat like the German pronunciation of “ch” in Bach. Words like “through” and “bough” ended in this sound (ever wonder why there is a “gh” at the end of these words? That’s why!). But nobody is advocating to put that sound back into the English language. That would be silly.

English used to have all kinds of case distinctions, genitive and whatnot, like German still has. Most of those have been lost, which has made English sentence structure more rigid to compensate. But there are still some residual case markings on a lot of pronouns. For example, you change the first person pronoun (I/me) depending on the case, but you would not change a noun like “fish” depending on the case. “I want it/Give it to me” vs. “The fish wants it/Give it to the fish.” (In German, “the fish” would be different in these two sentences.) Some of those rules with I/me are breaking down because they are just residuals of the former case distinctions anyway.

I don’t think it really matters that much, as long as you can express yourself effectively. For the most part, educated people know when they can get away with saying “me” and when they should use “I”. And sometimes, people will think you’re an ass if you say “I” – according to the classic rules of grammar, if you knock at a door and someone asks, “Who is it?” you are supposed to respond: “It is I!” But unless you are Ivanhoe or someone similarly important, you should probably just say, “It’s me.”

Perchik's avatar

Well put!

However, some things are still obnoxious and annoying grammar wise. Example, my roommate answers the phone “Hello? ” Is john there “This is me”.

jdb's avatar

If in doubt, remove the other people. In your example: “Ella took me to the opera.”

More on that here.

bob's avatar

@Christybird: Yes, language changes, but I’m skeptical of the idea that it can’t change for the worse—particularly when we give up teaching grammar because we assume that everyone will just naturally be able to say what they mean. My experience generally is that people know how to say what they mean, but that it’s very difficult to speak precisely. In writing, rather than speech, that difficulty is exacerbated substantially. Teaching people grammar is a way to make sure they can say what they mean.

christybird's avatar

Bob, I would absolutely agree with you when it comes to writing, but a writing system is very different from a spoken language. You were fluent in English (which I assume is your native language) by the age of 3 or 4. At that age, you knew all of its basic rules, although your vocabulary has probably increased quite a bit since then. However, many of us (myself included) are still trying to learn to write well as adults! (And some languages don’t even have writing systems…)

I think precision in speech is more a question of learning how to clearly present and analyze arguments, which doesn’t have much to do with grammar. However, if you can’t impress someone with the way you are phrasing your arguments (using “ain’t” and “gonna” and similar words that irk people and strike them as uneducated), they ain’t gonna listen to what you have to say! :-)

I’m mostly a pragmatist when it comes to these issues – I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about a word like “ain’t” – or saying something like “me and John went to the store” – but I think in the world we live in, you will impress more people and probably accomplish more by saying “isn’t” and “John and I.” Unless, of course, you are our president (in which case using pseudo-folksy grammar mistakes and malapropisms will fool people into thinking that you’re “one of them” instead of a rich, privileged Yale graduate, and win you two terms in office).

susanc's avatar

Really interested in the distinction christybird
makes between spoken and written English, somewhat separate languages used for separate reasons at different times. Example: my once-new husband’s teenagers took umbrage if I left them notes. In their experience you would only write someone a note if you wanted to establish distance. In my own family, everyone was sent to boarding school at 12 or so, and writing was the language available for maintaining closeness. Ooops.

gailcalled's avatar

I love seeing all the elegant, clear and easily-understood answers here. There is a sub-group of flutherers who are interested in this (and there is no reason why all should be- I can’t change a tire or repair my car engine. Or rather, I have chosen not to learn these skills, having others that interested me more.)

The second majority subculture is the computer, software and programming languages mavens. I just press my nose against my LCD screen and Google C++, Ruby, Textile, cocoa, nano, phonezoo, mp3 etc. Andrew recently taught me how to put the circumflex over a û and I have recently added a phone book to my portable phone. Yay for me.

christybird's avatar

Ha ha, Gailcalled, that is so true! All of those computer-related questions are so far beyond me. Just different interests, I suppose, like you say.

Poser's avatar

@christybird—I mostly agree with your points. However, let us not forget the lesson of 1984. Words = ideas. The spoken language can change for the worse, especially in the political arena. The PC-ing of our language is, in my opinion, an intentional obfuscation of ideas in an attempt to change minds without he hassle of proving points. Many books out there on this subject.

morphail's avatar

The use of “I” in object position goes back to the 1600s.

Now Margaret’s curse in fall’n upon our heads,
When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I… – Shakespeare, Richard III, act 3, scene 3

all debts are cleared between you and I – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, act 3, scene 2

This is clearly not due to English teachers telling people to use “I”, since English grammar was not taught before the 18th century.

There’s something about English conjoined pronouns that resists the assignment of case.

susanc's avatar

Morphail, this is very helpful to a stubborn and judgmental grammar know-it-all.

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