Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nose-Picking Preachers - The Use of Me and I

AAAAARRRGH! I can't believe I am ranting about this again. There is hardly a day goes by that I don't hear it several times. And it is bad enough when people do this in casual conversation but when professional orators, radio hosts, and newscasters can't get it right, it is especially annoying.

I am reprinting this rant, once again, because it is so irritating to me. So pay attention; I am going to say something here that most people will never mention because they are too polite or forgiving to tell you the truth. Nevertheless, whenever you commit this blunder there are lots of people who cringe at the least or think you are an ignoramus at worst.

The word is “me,” for cryin’ out loud. It’s “me, Me, ME.” Get it?

I don’t know why so many college-educated, degree holding professional communicators act like they were too busy doing lunch to show up for grammar school. And it is especially annoying when schoolteachers can’t get it right. After all, they're teaching our kids. What are we supposed to think? This is one of the simplest, basic rules of elementary grammar and one of the easiest to get right so pay attention. THE WORD IS “ME.” It is not “I” or even “myself.” IT IS “ME!”

Now here's a word of advice for anyone (especially preachers) who wants to verbally communicate something of substance or importance to an audience. The rule is, use “I” if it is the subject and “me” if it is the object of a preposition. Never use "I" after a preposition. Never, NEVER, NEVER say “I” when the WORD IS “ME!”

Why does it matter? Let me use a real-life illustration.  We have all, at one time or another, attended a children's musical presentation in a church. And I remember the night this really happened.  The children and their director were sincere and hopeful that the audience's attention might be directed to God in their singing.  All it took was one little “nose picker” in the front row to distract the entire audience. At that point, it didn’t matter how much they had practiced or how well they did, suddenly all attention was diverted from the object of our worship to the object in the kid’s nose.

I am serious about this. You have something to say and, I believe, you really want your audience to hear it. Do you think your presentation is necessary? Is it relevant? Is it important?  Do you want the people to pay attention to the substance of your message? Of course, you do. So then why would you interject something so irritating and distracting to the ears of your hearers that they would miss your point?

And preachers, you do this all the time. You spend a lot of time reading, studying, praying, and preparing for your message to the people. You recognize that, as the oracle of God, you have a personal responsibility to speak His Words after Him. You believe that your message, if it is truly scriptural, is the message that God wants to use in the hearts and minds of His people. You understand the importance of minimizing yourself and directing everyone’s full attention to the magnification and glory and praise of God. And then, suddenly, you distract their attention away from Him and His Word with one little irritating grammatical faux pas.

You will be passionately waxing eloquent on the merits of a loving God or the work of Christ in salvation. We will be listening intently. The Spirit of God is penetrating hearts and minds. And then you will personalize it with something like, “…this is what God requires of you and I,” or “…He did it all for you and I.”

At that point, you have lost me and everyone else who cringes at your colloquial slaughtering of the language. Whatever you were trying to communicate is not reaching my mind because I have been suddenly distracted by your figurative “nose picking.”

P.S. If you are irritated or offended by this article, please forgive I.



Ron Livesay said...

This is hard for I. Me don't understand the problem.

Jennifer said...

Ralph, you have made my day! I am a linguist (I don't work in that field now, but my undergrad and grad school was in linguistics) -- and you may be excited to know there is actually a linguistic, rule-based syntactic explanation for exactly the phenomenon you are describing. You will probably also be mightily miffed that linguists don't consider this usage incorrect, but rather reflective of a natural tension with English and reflective of language change (ie, your great-grandkids might be taught in school, and only use the "with you and I" usage).

Please bear with me, because I rarely get the chance to talk about this stuff that really floats my linguistic boat!

"Me" is the Accusative (or some call it Objective for English) case of "I". The form is "me" when the pronoun is an object of a verb or preposition: She sees me, She is with me.

However, noticeable or (and now I'm really getting giddy) "morphological" case marking is pretty unusual in English. We used to have it, but lost it centuries ago except in a handful of words, all pronouns (I-me, he-him, we-us, etc.).
Otherwise, nouns don't actually change form, we don't mark morphological case on them: The table is big. I see the table. The book's on the table. I realize you probably know all this, I did say bear with me!

Compare that to a language that retains morphological case, like Russian. "Kniga" = book. Kniga is on the table. I see knigu. It's on the knige. It's with the knigoj. And so forth.

Back to English. The typical linguistic analysis of English is that we DO mark case -- it just isn't visible (morphological) -- instead it's abstract.

OK. Compare:

She sees the book (abstract case marking on "book").
She sees the pen and the book (abstract case marking on..."the pen" and "the book", or "the pen and the book" -- because the case marking is abstract, we can't "see" where/how it's marked).
She sees my mother and me (here it's clear -- abstract case marking on "mother", morphological on "me" -- the two conjoined nouns are case-marked INDIVIDUALLY).
She sees my mother and I (here it's also clear -- abstract case marking on "my mother and I" -- the conjoined nouns are case-marked PHRASALLY.

Another way to picture it (and to demonstrate linguists' love of brackets):
She sees [[my mother-case] and [me-case]].
She sees [[my mother] and [I]-case].

So, the difference is whether case-marking is taking place phrasally or individually on conjoined nouns. That's why you never get "Talk to I," you only get this option with conjoined nouns and the possibility of abstract phrasal case marking.

This issue also has implications for the "She saw me and Mom" vs. "She saw Mom and me" thing. Probably you recall being taught "Mom and me"? But there's a reason (well, probably several, but only one relevant here) why people say "She saw me and Mom." If you're going to use a morphologically case-marked form ("me"), it's a whole lot more natural to have it before the abstract case-marked form ("Mom") (closer to the word that requires the case marking in the first place -- "saw," here).

Well, before I go on and create a textbook here, I'll end this. I hope I made sense at least. And maybe you'll be a bit more understanding of your poor preacher (or whoever it is!) who prefers abstract phrasal case-marking of conjoined nouns. Or, at least you can mutter something impressive-sounding under your breath when he next he uses his offensive speech -- "Enough with the distracting abstract phrasal case-marking already!"

Anyway, this has made my evening, and I have even given up a good night's sleep tonight to type it up. Man that housework that must get done tonight is looking mighty unpleasant now. But that's just between you and I.