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Why Do People Mix Up the Pronouns "I" and "Me"?

I can tell you which pronouns to use, but it takes a linguist to explain why people get confused. Here, Gretchen McCulloch reveals the fascinating reason that people struggle with sentences such as Billy and me went to the store

By
Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for
6-minute read
Episode #433

Well, it turns out that “it works in Latin, so it should work in English” is not necessarily a great idea to base your grammatical system on. 

In Latin, when something is the subject of a sentence, it’s always in the nominative case (the I-form, which is “ego”, and yes, that is where Freud got it), and when it’s the (direct) object, it’s always in the accusative case (the me-form, which looks like me in English although technically it was pronounced differently). And it doesn’t matter whether there’s a conjunction. Here are some examples in pseudo-Latin, where I’ve replaced all the words that aren’t essential to proving my point with their English equivalents (if you’d like full Latin examples, see here):

  • ego see her. 
  • she sees mē
  • Julia and ego see him 
  • he sees Julia and mē 

Anyway. The important thing to note is that the subject and object pronouns are different, but aren’t affected by the conjunction and. The “drop the other pronoun” test works fine in Latin. 

In French, Speakers Also Use Disjunctive Pronouns

But that’s not the case for all languages. Let’s take French as an example. In French, there are subject and object pronouns, such as je “I” versus me “me,” but there is also an additional form known as disjunctive pronouns, such as moi. (Again, this is pseudo-French: for full French examples, see here.) 

  • je see him 
  • he sees me
  • Julie and moi see her. 
  • she sees Julie and moi

The French disjunctive pronouns such as moi are used in a variety of contexts where you want to emphasize or stress the pronoun because it's doing something other than being a normal subject or object. For example, you find them after prepositions or it's, as well as when you need to say a pronoun all by itself.

  • It’s moi who saw him. 
  • Who’s there? 
  • Moi / It’s moi

When it comes to and, the "drop the other pronoun" test just doesn't apply for French. Even though you say je see him, no French speaker would ever say Julie and je see him. Instead, you use the disjunctive pronoun, to get Julie and moi see him. And the same goes for the other example: although you have he sees me, the equivalent with and, he sees Julie and me isn't good French: you have to use the disjunctive pronoun as in he sees Julie and moi.  

So what does this mean for English? 

Should English Pronouns Be Like French or Latin?

There's no a priori reason why English should pass the "drop the other pronoun with and test," given that it doesn't work for every language, and that speakers of French and Latin aren't and weren't constantly getting confused about which pronoun to use. 

Instead, as linguist Joseph Foster points out, there are multiple competing systems at work in English, depending on the dialect and level of formality. Informally, many people follow the French system, treating English me as a disjunctive pronoun, found with and, or, be and in isolation. 

In formal writing, it's more common to follow the Latin system and do the "drop the other pronoun" test, although since this is less intuitive, many people end up having to consciously recall the test in order to follow this system consistently. 

At mixed levels of formality, and especially in less-formal writing and more-formal speech where people are aware of the Latinate option but aren't quite doing enough editing to use it consistently, there's yet a third option: the hypercorrection of me and you into you and I under all circumstances has led to the development of a second English disjunctive pronoun in the form of I

The longer this mix of systems goes on, the more confusing it is for future learners: if you're a young child hearing adults produce forms according to all three of these systems, you'd be understandably confused about what's actually going on here. 

One way to see these three options is to look at subject and object pronouns beyond just I and me. You doesn't change, but people often have slightly different intuitions about we/us or they/them than for the strictly singular pronouns, I/me, she/her, and he/him, because you're less likely to have been corrected about them as often. For example, see what you think about Mary and us are going to the store versus Mary and we are going to the store, or Mary and them are going to the store versus Mary and they are going to the store.

Which brings us to our present-day state of confusion. Is it you and me? Me and you? You and I? It’s OK if you can never remember what to do: you’ve got multiple systems competing with each other. 

So you may be thinking Sure, that’s great, but what do I actually do? Well, if you’re trying to conform to the norms of formal written English, your best bet is still to keep doing the “drop the other part” test from the beginning, at least for the singular pronouns. But if you’re looking for a more casual register, you may be relieved to know that the you and me form actually does have historical precedent in English. 

This article was written by Gretchen McCulloch. You can find her at AllThingsLinguistic.com.

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About the Author

Gretchen McCulloch, Writing for Grammar Girl

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She is the Resident Linguist at Wired and the co-creator of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics. She lives in Montreal, but also on the internet.