Friday, January 7, 2011

Pronoun Peeves: I or me, Thou or Thee?

I am not a grammarian, though in some ways I am the ultimate grammar geek. Linguistics isn't about learning "the rules" and how they work, but watching the patterns of natural language and trying to describe them. On the other hand, there are some grammatical errors that drive me up the wall. Misuse of "less" and underuse of "fewer." Constant overuse of "lay" when people should be saying "lie." I've been known to say to people who tell me they'll lay down: "Oh, you're going to LIE down? That's great!"

But this post is going to be about a different issue: first person pronouns.

First person pronouns are "I," "me," and "my." I'm happy to day that no one seems to misuse "my." "I" and "me" however are in a more complicated relationship.

When we were kids, we were told that when we spoke of ourselves and another person, it was more polite to put that person first.

"Josie and I went to the store."

I think I got the full explanation more often than most, but I suspect the result of all this instruction was a society-wide mantra of "Josie and I" "David and I" etc. and here's what it turned into:

Hypercorrection.

Now some people say "and I" all the time, in every context. As a linguist, I can say the whole "and I" thing became like a fixed phrase and people stopped inflecting the pronoun for its position in the sentence.

Your sentence actually hasn't changed. Watch how it works when used properly.

I went to the store. Josie and I went to the store.
Notice: I went to the store is still there, just where it used to be. Josie just came along.

He started hitting me. He started hitting Taylor and me.
Notice: He started hitting me is still there. Just that Taylor got hit too.

He gave a book to me. He gave a book to my brother and me.
Notice: He gave a book to me is still there. My brother just happened to receive it too.

The way the grammar describes it feels more abstract, but really is only intended to describe what we just saw above. Use "I" when you're putting the pronoun in subject position, the position of someone who does something. Use "me" when you're putting the pronoun in object position (the second example) or indirect object position (the third example), where the person is either being done to or given to. If you use parallel sentences as I did above, you can easily show yourself the way it ought to go.

So what about "thou" and "thee"?

I've started seeing misuse of these archaic pronouns and feeling that itch to climb up walls again! I guess some folks are getting the idea that "thou" means "you" and so they're subbing it in anywhere they would ordinarily use "you."

Please don't do that. "You" just isn't a good grammatical parallel when it comes to "thou" and "thee."

The first thing you have to know is that these guys are actually singular familiar pronouns, used for informal or intimate conversation with one person and not for formal or group situations when even back then everyone would use "you." I highly recommend breaking out your Shakespeare and actually taking a thorough look.

If you want a quick guideline, though, the better pattern to follow is actually the pattern of the first person pronouns "I," and "me." Also, watch out and don't forget to conjugate your verbs!

Where you would use "I," use "thou":

I go there often.
  • Thou goest there often.
Do I go there often?
  • Dost thou go there often?

Where you would use "me," use "thee":

He leaves me here.
  • He leaves thee here.
He gives a gift to me.
  • He giveth a gift to thee.

Where you would use "my," use "thy" - but where you would use "our," use "your."

Give him my hand.
  • Give him thy hand.
Give him our blessings.
  • Give him your blessings. (both/all of you)


And here endeth the lesson. ;)