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Are You and I You and Me?

The Case of Compound Pronouns

Dr. Goodword (Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics)

Occasionally we drive a long way down the wrong road, knowing we have made the bad turn, but press on, hoping we will somehow end up in the right place. We do that in speaking, too.

Do you ever hear anyone say things like:

Mama told I to clean up my room.
They came over to watch TV with I.
The next drinks are on I

Of course, not. In all these instances we would all say:

Mama told me to clean up my room.
They came over to watch TV with me.
The next drinks are on me.

So why do the same people, who use "me" correctly when it stands alone, say things like this when it is in a compound phrase:

Mama told you and I to clean up our rooms.
They come over to watch TV with Fernando and I.
The next drinks are on you and I.

The choice of "I" or "me" in English depends on the same rule as the choice of "he/him" and "she/her," the rule that determines the function of the pronoun in sentences. In the Subject position, where "he" and "she" would be used, "I" must be used.

I love broccoli.
S/he loves broccoli.

As the Object of a verb or preposition, however, "I" is replaced by "me," just as "he" is replaced by "him," and "she" is replaced by "her."

Broccoli doesn't like me.
Broccoli does like her.

The difference between "I" and "me" in English is the difference between the function of a Subject or Object in a sentence. The Subject of a sentence is what the sentence is about and for that reason is usually the first noun or noun phrase in the sentence. It usually occurs before the verb, "I like Fernando," and never after it, "Fernando likes I."

"Me" is the Object form of "I," just as "him" is the Object form of "he." The Object form is used after the verb but also after prepositions: "Fernando likes me" or "Fernando likes working with him."

As we saw above, we cannot use "I" and "me" randomly; we must observe its function in the sentence. This applies to all the personal pronouns.

First Person Singular Third Person Singular Third Person Plural
I like broccoli. He likes broccoli. They like broccoli.
Fred saw me. Fred saw him. Fred saw them.
Fred looked at me. Fred looked at him. Fred looked at them.

Coordinated noun constructions like "you and I" change nothing. It is equally incorrect to say "Me worked late" and "Maureen and me worked late." And it is equally incorrect to say "Fred looked at I" and "Fred looked at Maureen and I." So why do we say things like "Fred saw Maureen and I"?

A common ungrammatical dialectal construct in U.S. English is "Me and Maureen ate all our kohlrabi." Grammarians who try to write rules for language rather than describe the ones that are already there, "prescriptive grammarians," found two problems with such constructions. First, the Subject contains an Object pronoun: "me." Second, the placement of "me" before the name of someone else was at one time considered impolite. Of course, politesse has nothing to do with grammar, that is, what is right or wrong in speech.

The result is that prescriptive grammar books used in U.S. schools for years have taught children to avoid constructions like "me and X" in favor of "X and I," where "X" represents any other noun or pronoun referring to a human being. They seldom make clear that this rule applies only in the Subject position. The critical grammatical rule, that "I" appears only in the Subject while "me" must be used in all Object positions gets lost in the concern for etiquette.

Young people in the U. S. have been so exposed to this oversimplified explanation of the "me-and-you" problem, that about 20 years ago U. S. English-speakers began switching "me and X" to "X and I" everywhere the phrase occurs in Subject and Object positions. When actors and others on TV and radio began speaking with this error, it spread like wildfire. Even President Obama has been criticized for making this mistake. This error may be an indication that English is losing the distinction between "I" and "me" for this confusion was also a problem in Shakespeare's day.

However, since Alpha Dictionary has caught this speech error in its early stages, it is possible to stop its spread. The prescription is simple: first, we must all stop making the error. Second, we must make sure that when we, as teachers and parents, correct "me-and-you" problem, we keep in mind that it is a dual error: the grammatical error of using the Object form of "I" in the Subject position and a point of etiquette that is at best optional. It is crucial that everyone understands that changing the "me" to "I" is restricted to Subject position. Here is a simple table with some examples that might be helpful.

WRONG RIGHT
Sarah helped you and I. Sarah helped you and me.
Can we keep this between you and I? Can we keep this between you and me?
She blamed everything on you and I. She blamed everything on you and me.
They served him before you and I. They served him before you and me.

Keep the following mnemonic sentence in mind: "I" am the Subject but the Object is "me." There are no exceptions. Join alphaDictionary in the fight to nip this linguistic virus in the bud!

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