Please do me this one little favor and stop misusing “I.”

May 19th, 2014

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I see it all the time, and I hope I afflict you with the same Curse of Seeing:

“They gave the book to John and I.”

No no no no NO. Correctly, that sentence reads:

“They gave the book to John and me.”

Why? Because the singular first-person pronoun that you use as the object of a preposition is always “me.” Let’s make up a bunch of examples:

The clerk was very helpful: he loaded the truck for me.

Mom gave the heirloom to me.

My son went to the store with me.

The TSA agent took my passport from me.

The burst of radiation went right through me.

The Persian carpet was spread out on the floor beneath me.

Now let’s try them with compound objects:

The clerk was very helpful: he loaded the truck for Angela and me.

Mom gave the heirloom to my sister and me.

My son went to the store with my wife and me.

The TSA agent took our passports from Dad and me.

The burst of radiation went right through Bruce and me. (HULK SMASH)

The Persian carpet was spread out on the floor beneath us.

You get the idea. I threw in that last one to make a point: we have a set of personal pronouns (I, we, he, she, etc.) that are used as the SUBJECT of a phrase. That’s why we say “We went to the store” instead of “Us went to the store.” Conversely, you’d say “He gave the book to us,” not “He gave the book to we.”

But when you say “He gave the book to John and I,” you’re saying “He gave the book to we.”

So don’t do that, please.

Learnable and Unlearnable Writing Skills

There’s a bigger thought underlying this specific issue of grammar, so please bear with me while I stay up here on my soapbox for a minute.

I tend to believe that some things in writing, maybe in any art, cannot be learned, or at least they cannot be taught. No guitarist, for example, can achieve the tone of Jimmy Page by simple force of will without some sort of talent lurking inside. It’s probably less talent than we suspect is needed — you don’t have to be born with perfect pitch — but there must be at least a modicum of it. In writing, similarly, most people apparently don’t hear the music like Neruda or Woolf did.

If you’re committed to your art, you should definitely plow ahead even if you’re lacking that talent. Some diligent grinders surely achieve great heights of creation by dogged application. Mastery is its own reward. So do try to learn even the part that can’t be explained.

But as for the parts that can be explained? This gets us back to “I” and “me” — and these you MUST learn, if you wish to be regarded as competent in your chosen field. Not to learn them is to brand yourself as inferior, or an ignoramus.

Fundamentals, Not Quibbles

I’m not bitching here about matters of opinion (the Oxford comma) or of outmoded usage (insisting on the distinction between “masterful” and “masterly”) or of patois (in which “ain’t” might be perfectly acceptable). I’m talking about standard English grammar, and the persistent misuse of it that I see even among friends who earn their bread by writing.

Spelling, by contrast, is not connected to intelligence: there are brilliant people with dyslexia or dysgraphia who cannot spell at all, and there are badly brain-damaged people who essentially cannot misspell. But that is why a bad speller who is a good writer will call on the services of a friend or a professional to proofread their work. Not for every Facebook post, surely, but for anything important enough.

Yet in the matter of grammar . . . we encounter a different story. Your use of grammar reflects your understanding of how our language fits together. To write “They gave the book to John and I” is to betray that you do not understand how English personal pronouns work — which means, if you’re a writer, that you don’t know how to use your basic tools. It would be like a carpenter who doesn’t know how to use a saw.

The moral of the story is this: LEARN the parts that you can learn.

3 Responses to “Please do me this one little favor and stop misusing “I.””

  1. Robert Wall Says:

    I think a lot of this can be laid at the feet of grade school English teachers who over-correct parts of the language and don’t bother to affirm correctness elsewhere. Little kids who say “me and Susie went to the store” keep hearing their teachers correct them with “No, it’s ‘Susie and I’ went to the store.”

    They’re never told that “Susie and *me*” is correct when they use it correctly, only that it’s constantly incorrect when they use it in the subject. It would be as simple as “at the beginning of a sentence you say ‘Susie and I’, and at the end you say ‘Susie and me’.”

    But that doesn’t happen.

    So enough repetition drills it into kids’ heads, and the lack of distinction between subject and object pronouns at that level just gets kids in the habit of ‘Susie and I’, which sticks.

    That said, it doesn’t excuse grown, otherwise-competent adults for doing it incorrectly *when it’s their craft*. But it does explain the modern epidemic. ;)

    Great post!

  2. Tim Walker Says:

    I think you’ve nailed it, Robert. We get the rote version drilled into us, but not the *reasons* for it. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Lisa Says:

    “The moral of the story is this: LEARN the parts that you can learn.”

    Kinda like life, no?

    Does “kinda” count as patois, we wonder?

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