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It's Me Not I: Misuse of the Personal Pronoun (and the Destruction of Western Civilization)

I have a BA in history and creative writing and an MA in history. I enjoy politics, movies, television, poker, video games, and trivia.

Grammar Down the Toilet

The number of people who do not know when to use the personal pronoun "I" and when to use the personal pronoun "me" is staggering.

I recently told my wife that I correct people in the office and have gone so far as to send out an email explaining the difference. Since I work in an academic environment, I felt it was a courtesy to these people. I hoped that it would raise their level of respect within our community. My wife responded with a look of horror.

"You don't really do that, do you?" she asked.

Of course I do, I responded. If somebody in your office was setting fire to a piece of furniture or was assaulting a customer or was about to detonate a small nuclear device, would you just sit back and do nothing? No, you would do something. You would rise up and play the hero! Or, at least, scream at the top of your lungs.

If you were witnessing one of the signs of the Apocalypse and knew you could do something about it, would you just sit back and do nothing? No, you would not.

Do not let the world end!

Our society is teaching people that using "I" is always right. It's like a default. When in doubt: My boss told John and I to finish the work.

No, no no. It's "my boss told John and me to finish the work."

Stop dragging Western Civilization into the gutter.


Speaking vs. Writing

Look, any competent grammar Nazi understands that occasionally there's a difference between speaking something and writing something. This is one of those cases. I'm offering up that one caveat to this rant: it's harder to use I and me correctly when speaking than it is when writing. Part of the problem is that sentence structure can sometimes get complicated and we lose track of whether we're the object of a sentence or the subject of a sentence.

Ah, yes, remember back to elementary school when you learned all about objects and subjects? If not, here's a quick review:

The moron spoke incorrectly, using the subjective form instead of the objective form.

The subject of this sentence is "the moron" and the object of this sentence is "the subjective form". I'll make it a bit easier:

The moron hit the idiot with a hammer.

Here, "the moron" is the subject of the sentence again and "the idiot" is the object. In the case of "I" and "me", "I" is the subjective form of the personal pronoun and "me" is the objective form. Thus, if you are the subject of a sentence, you use "I" and if you are the object of a sentence, you use "me".

So back to my original point about the differences between writing and speaking. I get it. We hear morons all over the world, from broadcasters to politicians, misusing personal pronouns all the time, so we assume that using "I" is the right thing to do all the time. Again, if you watch a moron jump off the side of a building, do you jump too? Of course not. So don't misuse the personal pronoun either. Still, it's one thing to misuse personal pronouns while speaking. Misusing them while writing is unforgivable. We need a specific country where we can deport such people unless other countries have been deporting their pronoun misusers and that's why we have the problem we do, in which case we need to identify those countries and declare war against them immediately.

You would never write the following sentence, would you?

My boss gave a present to I.

So why do so many people say things like this:

My boss gave a present to John and I?

And you certainly wouldn't say something like this:

Me going to go to the store.

Unless you're this guy:

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Learning to use personal pronouns correctly

Now, I'm going to admit something. I had a difficult time figuring out when to use "I" and when to use "me" a long time ago, so I came up with a few rules to help me remember when to use "I" and when to use "me" correctly. While there are occasions when these rules don't work, they almost always work, so use them. Ultimately, I bet you'll find one rule that sticks and helps you to use the English language correctly.

1. Since the most common misuse occurs when something is happening to you and somebody else, just rethink the sentence without the other person.

We inevitably hear sentences like I mentioned above: "Jack gave a dollar to Harold and I." People say stuff like that all the time. They'd be less likely to say it if they simply thought about the sentence by removing Harold. Thus, "Jack gave a dollar to I." Would you ever say something like that? Of course not. The right way is: "Jack gave a dollar to me", so "Jack gave a dollar to Harold and I" is always wrong. ALWAYS. It's "Jack gave a dollar to Harold and me." ALWAYS.

2. If you are before the verb, it's "I". If you are after the verb, it's "me".

"Ben asked John...." The verb in this sentence is "asked". If you are Ben in this sentence, then you would say "I asked John." If you are John in this sentence, then you would say "Ben asked me." Pretty simple.

3. If you are doing the action, it's "I". If you are being acted upon, it's "me".

This might be one of the easier ways to remember. Are you doing the thing or is the thing being done to you? This is a pretty easy thing to think about while you're talking. You're just yammering on, but in the back of your mind, as you approach the use of a personal pronoun, you can just think: "Am I doing the thing or is the thing being done to me?" So you're talking about your boss and what he told you to do or what he gave you and you quickly figure out that you're going to say "me" even if your boss told you and five other people because, simply, you weren't the one doing the acting. You're being acted upon. Likewise, you're telling a story about you and a friend and how you went to a baseball game or drinking or whatever. Or maybe it's you and four other people. Well, you know you're doing the acting, so "Bill and Ted and Jimmy and I went out drinking."

4. More generally, if you are at the beginning of the sentence, it's probably "I". If you are at the end of the sentence, it's probably "me".

This rule doesn't always quite work, but it can be helpful in giving a hint because generally, if you, yourself, are early in a sentence, it's probably time for "I". If you, yourself, comes later in a sentence, it's probably me. Yes, there are exceptions, but I'm not going to confuse you by telling you what they are because this subject is just too important to cause more confusion.

Okay, wait, I changed my mind. Here's an exception:

Gerald is generally more intelligent than I.

Yes, that's the correct way to write and say that. It's not "Gerald was generally more intelligent than me". The reason is that it's presumed that a verb comes after the "I", as in "I am". That's what you're actually saying: "Gerald is generally more intelligent than I am." Thus, you'll remember the rule above that states that the subjective form of the personal pronoun is used when it precedes a verb.

An Admission

I know this article seems harsh, but some things bug me more than others.

Honestly, I don't know that much about grammar. Most of what I do know about grammar I learned by accident or because I had to understand something to be a good writer, but if you quizzed me on past participles and various other grammatical terms, I wouldn't be able to give you a good answer.

So if I've made any glaring mistakes in this article, feel free to correct them. After all, that's what this is all about: learning stuff, learning to be a better speaker and a better writer. We all make mistakes. Some of us try to correct them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Allen Donald


Allen Donald (author) from Colorado on August 16, 2013:

I'll explain "at" in layman's terms. "Where you at?" is obviously incorrect grammar. The proper thing to ask would be "Where are you?" Asking "where you at?" avoids the use of a verb altogether and really what the person is asking is "Where are you at?" Since "at" is part of the question asking where, the phrase could even be shortened to "Where you?" and mean the same thing. Ending a sentence with a preposition ("at" in this case) is almost always pointless.

leslie29 on August 15, 2013:

Will you please explain how to use the word "at". If I hear "Where you at?" one more time I am going to pull out what little hair I have left!

Kim Dingess on July 30, 2012:

I really enjoyed your hub and how you related using incorrect grammar to the apocalypse. It's good to know I'm not the only one who finds it important to correct people's grammar. Great article!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on April 13, 2012:

You don't know that much about grammar??? You have humbly set out some good rules of thumb here. Thanks for a good article. Some of my pet peeves are "between you and "I", which is becoming more and more in use on television by people who should know better, "I seen," "between the three of us," and using "their" for a singular pronoun. "Their" for singular has been explained away as being "gender correct", but in legal writing we substitute "his and hers" or we repeat the noun. I don't accept "common usage" or "language evolves" as an excuse for errors either, and my come back to those who argue for it is "why have any rules at all?" I'm referring to writing, not everyday speech, but if we aren't careful when we speak, it will carry over into our writing. Voted you up and useful.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on March 11, 2012:

Good for you! I am so glad you wrote this. It always bothers me, too, when I hear people say "I" when they should be saying "me" ... all because they assume that "I" is the proper way. And they don't understand that it all has to do with subjective and objective pronouns. Now, thanks to you, whenever a friend makes this mistake, I can send them a link to your Hub.

Anahi Pari-di-Monriva from Massachusetts on January 13, 2012:

Thanks for a funny Hub about one of my biggest pet peeves. The other big pet peeve I have is the excuse the ignorant morons who don't know the objective case from the subjective...ummm, I'm sounding like a ranting prescriptive language grammar Nazi...I mean, the runner-up for biggest pet peeve for me is the "language evolves" argument, invoked most notably by people who can never remember the difference between cases in English (and I include English majors from Harvard Univ. whom I've had the pleasure of meeting). I posit that this is an instance of language "devolution." Ok. That's my rant! I'm done.

Very well done job...and for a prescriptive grammar proponent, you wrote about the topic in a very sensitive manner. Kudos!

The Writers Dog on January 13, 2012:

Great, informative Hub. Putting a picture of my favourite Sesame Street resident will get anything voted up!

I would have without Cookie, though.

FrugalandFab from New Hampshire on January 13, 2012:

A very useful hub. I enjoy learning more about the complexities of the English language, and how to properly use it. I have forgotten a great deal from my days in school, so a refresher is always well received. Thanks so much for writing this; it feels as though it was written just for me!

Sheila Varga Szabo from Southern California on January 13, 2012:

Whew, for a minute there, I thought the world was coming to an end because you saw zombies at your office. Ha ha ha. Thanks for the English lesson, and funny as usual.

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