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 email@example.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
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