First of all, I want to introduce you to this blog, which admirably sums up in its every post, my feelings about language, grammar and pedantry – to whit, it take only a modest level of education to criticise other people for supposed infringements such as split infinitives, dangling participles or what have you, but none of this has anything to do with understanding how language works, which is a more complicated undertaking. If you prefer not to split infinitives, then that is primarily a reflection of your taste, and says little or nothing about how English grammar actually works or is used by its speakers.

So, while it may be entertaining to read (and certainly to write) about grammatical “pet peeves”, this caveat should be borne clearly in mind by writer and reader alike. X may very well drive you crazy, but if X is fairly common among native English speakers (from any country) then that says far more about you than it does about them or about X.

All that having been said, let’s start with a very common English stumbling block. For some reason, English speakers who have no problem at all selecting “I” or “me” when talking only about themselves reach for the wrong pronoun when talking in the plural. Should you care about getting this right (and, as mentioned, there’s no particular reason why you should) the rule is very easy to apply. We don’t even have to approach the baby slopes of grammar terminology. I can give you the rule without even talking about “subject” and “object” (which is the reason for the distinction).

Try these five sentences. Which is right?

  • Me and Jo are going swimming later, do you want to come?
  • It’s not your problem, just let Chris and I handle it.
  • Sam and I will go first, followed by you and then the rest.
  • We’ve talked about it and both me and Pat feel we should contribute.
  • Just give it to either me or Sandy on your way past.

Ready for the answer? Here it comes…

The third and fifth are correct. The others are all wrong. How do you know? Just remove the other person.

  • Me is going swimming later, do you want to come?
  • It’s not your problem, just let I handle it.
  • I will go first, followed by you and then the rest.
  • We’ve talked about it and me feels we should contribute.
  • Just give it to me on your way past.

So, the point is that anyone who cares can easily get this right if they want, but if you don’t care, then it should only affect that small percentage of people who both know and get cross about it. It makes me mildly annoyed when, in dramas, a character who would be quite likely to both know and care is given lines by a writer who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care and so gets it wrong, but I’ve learned to live with it.

What I find more interesting is some of the psychology which these facts about language and the presence of these rules brings along for the ride. Because people remember having had “me and X” corrected to “X and I”, the latter seems to have a more prestigious status in some people’s minds, so I suspect that some people who say “X and I” when “me and X” would have been correct are overcorrecting. They wanted to say “me and X”, they knew that sounded right, but they corrected it to “X and I” at the last minute. In some cases, the anxiety about whether to say “I” or “me” is so profound that people substitute “myself” instead, which is almost guaranteed to be wrong (once again, “wrong” in this one very narrow, prescriptive sense). For some people (especially in HR) this becomes a linguistic tic which can quickly become irritating. “Would you just sign the letter yourself, and then send it back to myself so that Jo and myself can review it and then myself will get back to yourself before yourself goes away on Thursday.” Please find the time to punch yourself in the face, while you’re at it, noticing as you do that because “punch yourself” is reflexive (the puncher is both subject and object, doer and done-to) that “yourself” is appropriate here. You may also use “myself” for emphasis as in “I can punch you in the face myself if you prefer,” but it is not a substitute for any and all personal pronouns.

I think there’s something else even deeper going on here. I think that a kind of neurotic politeness forces people away from both “I” and “me” pronouns; a need to avoid putting oneself in the line of fire, or the spotlight. “Myself” is somehow weaker than “me” and creates a barrier between my audience and the anxious core of my being. Here’s another example of a similar habit.

Here’s some English verb conjugating for you. English prefers to pile on extra words rather than fuck about with a lot of complicated verb endings to address things like case, tense, voice and so on, so these verb conjugations are pretty easy. Let’s take the verb “jump” and the present simple tense.

First person singular: I jump
First person plural: We jump
Second person singular or plural: You jump
Third person singular: He/she/it jumps
Third person plural: They jump

What’s missing from this list? English has an extra pronoun, sometimes omitted, and certainly with a rather archaic feel. Not “ye” or “thou”, both of which are certainly outside modern English. Not the American “y’all” which allows for a useful distinction between second person singular and second person plural, a distinction not found in standard English. No, it is the generic third person “one”, which today belongs primarily in the mouths of lazy comedians substituting it for any and all pronouns when impersonating members of the royal family. So what do we do, when we want to talk about “people in general” rather than any one person or group of people in particular? We co-opt the already over-stretched second person pronoun “you”.

And fair enough. “What should one do when one encounters another person with grammatical habits one takes a personal dislike to?” sounds unbearably pompous, stuffy and hifalutin. How much more relaxed, informal, natural and appropriate to use “you” instead. But what I’ve noticed is that the word “you” often gets substituted for “I” or “me” instead. Take film reviews as an example. Here’s a random example from the Total Film review of Inception.

At no point do you feel anything is here for effect, or that one constituent part doesn’t interact seamlessly with those around it.

Whose feelings are being described here? Not mine, I don’t know this reviewer, I’ve never met Neil Smith. He’s in fact describing his own response, but imagines that his opinions are generally shared or – more likely – is on some level anxious about owning this opinion, so the third person generic “you” is pressed into service. Here’s another example – sticking with “Inception”.

The denouement is a rather unsatisfying moment which leaves you wondering whether [POTENTIAL SPOILER REDACTED].

It might or might not leave me wondering. All we know for the moment is that it left you wondering, Jason Korsner. Other examples are easy to find. It’s particularly noticeable when the interviewee is trying to make an experience which very few people have sound relatable and universal. Here’s an interview with Sheryl Crow which I found from 1999.

You hear about male singers picking girls out of the audience and taking them backstage – but what would I do with a guy when I got him? I’ve got to get on the tour bus and drive all night. I think those days only really existed when you were flying around and you could stay and party until four in the morning and then get into your private jet and fly to the next place. God, if only it was that way now!

Oddly, Sheryl, I don’t share that experience.

Having noticed this, I found it hard to avoid. I’m now in the habit of mentally substituting “I” when I hear this awkward “you” and, yes, it does sound a little more direct, but it also sounds a bit more honest and revealing, which is usually the point of giving an interview or writing a review. I may have spoiled interviews and reviews for you forever, but I’m afraid from now on you’ll have to put up with it. And if you’re pissed off with myself, then that’s something you and me are just going to have to deal with. But you know what that’s like, right?

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