Home Commentary The Way I See It: Between You and Me, Myself, or I?

The Way I See It: Between You and Me, Myself, or I?

Some years ago, when I was teaching English at U-32, I attended a writing conference at Vermont College. Actually, I don’t remember exactly what that beautiful campus with a longtime identity crisis was called at the time. Despite its various names and affiliations over the years, it remains a treasure appealingly situated at the top of East State Street.

The keynote speaker, linguist and prolific author Richard Lederer, led a large group session in Alumni Hall, in which he gave us 10 either/or English correctness questions to answer. I was sitting beside a colleague from Montpelier High School, and afterwards when we compared answers, we discovered we agreed only 60% of the time. That year I had that woman’s daughter in a ninth grade class. Poor girl! She could ask her English-teacher mom for help on writing assignments, but her English teacher at school had final say. Not fair!

Actually, it wasn’t that bad. Lederer was emphasizing challenges in teaching a dynamic, perpetually changing language, so he had intentionally selected controversial situations to make sure there would be plenty of disagreement. Rest assured, in the vast majority of cases, English teachers will agree on most points of GUM — grammar, usage, and mechanics.

A couple of generations back, teachers and some language hounds so strongly emphasized that using “me” as the subject was wrong that America developed a national paranoia about using that simple little pronoun. The backlash against “me” led to incorrect usages of “I” and “myself,” and someone recently asked me about the latter.

“Between you and myself –.” The woman stopped abruptly. “Wait. I’m speaking to an English teacher. (Actually, a former English teacher.) That doesn’t sound quite right.”

It’s not.

Mistakes with “I,” “me” and “myself” have become so common that sometimes you hear them even on National Public Radio — said by guests, not hosts or announcers, who would likely get a serious talking-to if they made that kind of slip on the air. Confusion over these pronouns is one of the most common errors made by educated and otherwise well-spoken people.

Here’s a quick review.

“I” is a subject: I like music. (I’m doing the action.)

“Me” is an object of a verb or preposition: “Music relaxes me.” “That book is for me.” It is incorrect to say, “Music relaxes myself,” or “That book is for myself.” Prepositions are placed before a noun or pronoun to form a phrase modifying another word in the sentence. There are a few dozen of them, including after, to, from, for, than, and between.

“Myself” is never a subject or an object. It is a reflexive pronoun (which reflects back to the subject): “I bought myself a new vinyl record.”

The other use of “myself” is as an intensive pronoun: “I myself would rather listen to music than watch TV.” (“Myself” is used for emphasis.)

Sentences with compound subjects or objects can be confusing. To get the right pronoun, the key is to imagine the sentence without the other subject or object. For example, to determine the correct pronoun in this sentence, “Bert and (I/me/myself) went biking,” leave “Bert and” off to get a simpler sentence that will help you to determine that “(Bert and) I went biking” is the correct choice.

You can do the same thing with this sentence, “Bert beat Ernie and (I/me/myself) to the top of the hill,” to see that it should be “Bert beat (Ernie and) me to the top of the hill.”

Despite these grammar tips, we don’t need GUM police following us around town. Although I taught English for 20 years, every day I make what traditional grammarians would call mistakes. (I have probably made some in this column.) Most of my errors are because I speak and often write casual, everyday English — not the King’s English; however, like everyone, I make unintended errors.

If you do an internet search of “I, me, myself usage,” you will find more details and examples. If you’re not sure about some of the other grammar issues that frequently mix up educated people — such as lie/lay, fewer/less, than/then, or good/well — there are plenty of websites that have answers.

If Bob Dylan can write and sing “Lay Lady Lay” and still win a Nobel Prize for Literature, maybe you can be excused for not realizing that technically it should be “Lie, Lady, Lie.” We can’t forget Pink Floyd’s classic — and I think intentionally ironic — song, “We Don’t Need No Education,” or James Brown’s exuberant, “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Sometimes grammar gives way to artistic license.

Getting back to me, myself and I: We should at least use these personal pronouns correctly. After all, I expected that ninth grader to know them — and so did her English-teacher mom.