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

Gretchen McCulloch, read by Mignon Fogarty,
September 11, 2014
Episode #433

Why are people confused about pronouns like me and I

A recent episode of the Autobiography of Jane Eyre (which is a fantastic webseries that has nothing to do with linguistics but you should check out anyway) provides an excellent example of the difficulties people have with you and I versus you and me.  

The relevant portion is in Episode 59, between 2:50 and 3:13. Here’s a transcript: 

Diana: If you need anything, just let Mary or me know. 

Mary: It’s “Mary or I” 

Diana: It’s “Mary or me”

Mary: No, it’s “Mary or I”

Jane: Actually, I think it’s “Mary or me”

Mary: You’re right! Cause if I wasn’t here you wouldn’t say “let I know” because that wouldn’t make any grammatical sense.

Diana: Anyways, if you need anything just let me know, and I’ll make Mary over here get it for you. (laughs)

The logic that Mary uses to pick between I and me is fairly standard grammarian advice (drop the Mary or the you and then use whichever one sounds right when left alone), but this leaves us with an important question: given that picking between I and me is intuitive in every other context, why do our intuitions abandon us as soon as you add an and

In Latin, Subject Pronouns Go in the Subject Position

This question has a two-part answer. Part one is that grammarians have long railed against constructions like Me and Mary are going to the store favoring instead Mary and I are going to the store. The basis for their argument is that someone who is going to the store is in subject position, and therefore should use the subject form of the pronouns (such as I), regardless of whether there’s an and or not. It works in Latin, so it should work in English. So, if you get corrected enough times, eventually you might learn to say Mary and I or you and I instead of me and Mary or me and you

However, for a lot of people, the rule that sticks is, “___ and I” is always better than “me and ___”. So they end up applying it to every context of “me and ___” or “___ and me”, even when the me isn’t in the subject position and therefore has no reason to be changed to I. This is an example of hypercorrection, which is also responsible for things like the scattershot use of whom whenever someone wants to sound more fancy. 

Part two is, why does anyone ever say me and Mary or me and you in subject position in the first place? You might get a very young child or very beginner-level second-language speaker saying me is going to the store (me am going to the store?), but never a full-grown adult native speaker. And yet the same adults who have been speaking English their entire lives can produce Me and Mary are going to the store without a second thought, especially in a casual context where they aren’t thinking about which form to use. What gives? 

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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