John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Me, myself, and I

A reader new to this blog has been puzzled by the photo captions in Gore Vidal’s Snapshots in History’s Glare: “Howard and I at Edgewater in the early fifties” and “Senator Gore and I in the thirties.” She wonders whether these are correct or whether me would be preferable.

Mr. Vidal’s usage is traditional and impeccable. Generally speaking, the pronoun me is used as the object of a verb or preposition, I as a subject. Where the pronoun is not an object and holds the same position as the subject of a sentence, as in these captions, I is the default.

Generally, however, is a regrettably necessary weasel word in talking about usage. There are many situations in which me is acceptable and even preferable in place of I. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage devotes a full page to the historical acceptance of it’s me, and Garner on Usage also accepts it, particularly in informal contexts.

As usage, particularly American usage, has grown more informal, what was once taught and modeled as correct — it is I — can look forbiddingly formal, even pretentious. So photo captions written as in Mr. Vidal’s book can look just a little off to younger readers.

There is a perversely reverse side of informality. Some people, struggling to avoid looking vulgar and undereducated, veer into hypercorrection, shunning me and uttering constructions like between you and I. Don’t go there.

Some, having been trained that using I and me sounds egotistical, use the reflexive pronoun myself in its place for the sake of modesty: The wife and myself had a real swell time, Duchess. All right, I loaded the dice with that one. While myself is best used as a reflexive — I saw it myself — the pronoun has been used regularly over four centuries as both subject and object in casual correspondence or conversation. Merriam-Webster’s cites examples from Samuel Johnson, T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, and numerous other luminaries.

As we grow less rigid about language, because the prevailing trend is toward less formality in most public writing, the question for the writer is often less whether something is right or wrong, but whether the degree of formality or informality is appropriate for the audience and the context.


Addendum: The reader also wondered about the use of awing in The New York Times: “something to the effect that Meryl Streep was awing audiences. Do you think this is a word? If it is, would it be ‘aweing’?”

Awe is both a noun and a verb, and it drops the e for the present participle

8 comments:

  1. I read the caption as a compact version of, "This is a picture of Howard and me at Edgewater in the early fifties." "I" sounds awkward.

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  2. But it might as easily be "Howard and I are at Edgewater in the early fifties" or "Howard and I are shown at Edgewater in the early fifties."

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  3. The addendum triggered this thought: How, O Gentle Reader, do you suppose the name "Ewing" came about?

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  4. Virginia MerchánMarch 1, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    Thank you, John... I was never sure about that. I was taught (time: long ago; place: the southern hemisphere) that only "I" was the right pronoun for a subject but, on Facebook, I started seeing the "me" in its place ("Me dies", "Me too", etc.). And I started to "copycat" my American friends though feeling as if I was making a mistake.

    But no, it was not.

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  5. because it's a fragment the me/i argument is tough to resolve. what's the silent structure?

    it could be "a picture of howard and me..."
    it could be "this is howard and i…"
    it could be "see howard and me…"
    it could be "howard and i are shown…"

    are there any clues as to which of these is more likely?

    in these cases i like to get rid of the conjunction. when i do that, i find that i would never write a caption like "i in the eighties" or "i learning to crochet" or "i posing for the picture" and i imagine it's because i'm using the pronouns as objects.

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  6. "The question for the writer is often less whether something is right or wrong, but whether the degree of formality or informality is appropriate for the audience and the context." Well put.

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  7. MichiganCityDDS, Wikipedia says:

    Ewing comes from the Greek eugenes (Greek- ευγενής, meaning "noble", literally "well-born") via the Gaelic Eoghan, leading to Ewen, which has the same roots as Owen, according the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames. Ewing is one of the more common of the many variations that appears throughout Celtic Britain and also in Brittany (as Evin), including the Latinized Eugenius, as well as Eugene and MacEwen/MacEwan

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  8. Thank you. I'm a longtime copy editor who was puzzled by this exact caption issue in regard to an autobiography I'm working on (not mine), and I appreciate the authoritative and thoughtful advice.

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