When President Obama spoke before Congress and the nation tonight,he was facing some of his toughest critics.
Since his election,the president has been roundly criticised by bloggers for using I instead of me in phrases like a very personal decision for Michelle and I or the main disagreement with John and I or graciously invited Michelle and I.
The rule here,according to conventional wisdom,is that we use I as a subject and me as an object,whether the pronoun appears by itself or in a twosome. Thus every I in those quotes ought to be a me.
So should the president go stand in a corner of the Oval Office (if he can find one) and contemplate the error of his ways? Not so fast.
For centuries,it was perfectly acceptable to use either I or me as the object of a verb or preposition,especially after and. Literature is full of examples. Heres Shakespeare,in The Merchant of Venice: All debts are cleared between you and I. And heres Lord Byron,complaining to his half-sister about the English town of Southwell,which,between you and I,I wish was swallowed up by an earthquake,provided my eloquent mother was not in it.
It wasnt until the mid-1800s that language mavens began kvetching about I and me. The first kvetch cited in Merriam-Websters Dictionary of English Usage came from a commencement address in 1846. In 1869,Richard Meade Bache included it in his book Vulgarisms and Other Errors of Speech.
Why did these 19th-century wordies insist I is I and me is me? They were probably influenced by Latin,with its rigid treatment of subject and object pronouns. For whatever reason,their approach stuck at least in the rule books.
Then,why do so many scofflaws keep using I instead of me? Perhaps its because they were scolded as children for saying things like Me want candy instead of I want candy, so they began to think I was somehow more socially acceptable. Or maybe its because they were admonished against its me. Anybody whos had it is I drummed into his head is likely to avoid me on principle,even when its right. The term for this linguistic phenomenon is hypercorrection.
A related crime that Obama stands accused of is using myself to dodge the I-versus- me issue,as when he spoke of a substantive conversation between myself and the president. The standard practice here is to use myself for emphasis or to refer to the speaker (Ill do it myself),not merely as a substitute for me. But some language authorities accept a looser usage,and point out that myself has been regularly used in place of me since Anglo-Saxon days.
Our 44th president isnt the first occupant of the White House to suffer from pronounitis. Nos. 43 and 42 were similarly afflicted. The symptoms: for Laura and I, invited Hillary and I, and so on. (For the record,Nos. 41 and 40 had no problem with the objective case,regularly using Barbara and me or Nancy and me when appropriate.)
But an educated speaker is expected to keep his pronouns in line. Here,then,is a tip,Mr. President. Nobody chooses the wrong pronoun when its standing on its own. If youre tempted to say for Michelle and I in tonights speech,just mentally omit Michelle (sorry,Mrs. Obama),and youll get it right. And no one will get on your case.
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