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Lord, is it me? (Or is it I?)


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When I was a kid growing up in the UK, world maps in our schoolrooms still showed huge swaths of pink, glorifying the extent of the British Empire on which, we were assured, the sun never set. We were fed the myth that Britain ruled the waves along with much of the land (until our comeuppance at Suez in 1956), and moviemakers of that era played along. Typical scene: White meets black somewhere in the Dark Continent. "I'm Doctor Farnsworth," the pith-helmeted explorer would say in his plummy Eton voice. "Me Moogoo," replied the suitably awed native.

We'd smile, of course. Back then, using object "me" for subject "I" was seen as a sign of inferiority. The idea was that, if someone knocked on the door and you asked, "Who is it?" the reply, "It is I" or "It's me," would immediately establish the class of whomever (!) was outside. Pronouns came in two basic flavors, subject and object, and if you were going to get anywhere in this world, you'd jolly well better know which one to use.

English pronouns really are a bit of a dog's breakfast. We differentiate between subject and object with some: I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them. But we don't with others: "it" takes care of them both, while "you" covers not just subject and object, but singular and plural as well (which is why youse, you-all/y'all, and you-uns have been called into service, harkening back to the archaic forms: singular thee/thou, plural ye/you).

In theory, I/me, for instance, is pretty clear, but in practice, it just ain't so. OK, maybe the Queen says, "It's I" and she's probably the last living native English speaker to start a sentence, "My husband and I..." The rest of us commoners have mostly moved on. Here's the test: Would you, fellow Humboldtian, say, "Pat and I met at Ramone's," or "Pat and me met at Ramone's"? If you're partial to "I", check this out: "I and Pat met at Ramones." That's "proper" English, if you're committed to the I-subject/me-object rule. But trust me, even the Queen doesn't say, "I and Philip are going to Ascot."

Here's what happened. Self-styled grammarians 300-odd years ago promulgated these rules of English -- check Wikipedia's entry for "Robert Lowth" for instance -- basing their notions of what constituted "proper" English on Latin, whose grammar is mathematically logical. (And complicated. Seared into my brain are the Latin cases: nominative-genitive-dative-accusative-ablative-locative-vocative.)

But English isn't Latin. Unlike Latin, it's alive, meaning it's fluid and flexible, changing from one generation to the next. And in spoken English today, pronouns don't always follow mathematical logic. Time was, "Amn't I?" sounded OK, but today the illogical (singular/plural disagreement) "Aren't I?" is standard. Pronouns are, in the words of popular linguist John McWhorter, "playful little puppies" that jump the rails of formal grammar. If I were (another usage in transition) going for a job interview, I'd probably say, "My friends and I ..." but once I got the job, I'd get off my high horse and use "me" in that phrase. I bet you-guys would too.

Barry Evans ( Hears a Whom when reading Dr. Seuss.

CAPTION: Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." While the 1611 King James Bible has "Is it I, Lord?" (Matthew 26:22), in the World English Bible of 1997 it's, "It isn't me, is it, Lord?" (Italian Ministry of Culture/public domain)


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