By Michael Corballis 09/01/2017

“Me and my husband,” began the Queen in her Christmas message. Well of course she didn’t. For a start, she always modestly places herself second: “My husband and I …” But had she relegated Philip to his proper station, she would surely have said “I and my husband …”

Or if she had insisted on the royal “we,” it would have been “We and my husband,” and not “Us and my husband.” (Actually, Philip seems to have dropped out of the Christmas message in recent years).

The construction “me and X” as the subject of a sentence seems universal, as in “Me and Fred went to the movies,” “Me and Jane strangled the cat.” Yet dictionaries insist that “me” is the accusative case—the object not the subject of a sentence. Somehow, the rule is lost when we place ourselves first. I think most of us would correctly say “Fred and I went to the movies,” or “Jane and I strangled the cat,” although even in these cases the rogue “me” sometimes intrudes.

Why “me”? It seems to me (dative) that “me and X” is fairly recent, although perhaps it’s just that we were once less inclined to place ourselves first. Maybe we can blame the baby-boomers born between 1946 and 1964 who created the “Me generation.”

Or could it be the opposite, an excess of modesty? We were once taught not to use the first person when writing, so the pronoun “I” was discouraged, so we keep personal feelings out of it. Perhaps the accusative “me” sounds a little less egocentric. Or simply less intrusive than the spiky “I”? But then why are people (but not I, of course) more likely to prefer “me” rather than “I” when it comes first in the phrase, and not second or later?

In any case it does sometimes go beyond the first-person singular. I’ve also heard phrases like “Her and mum went shopping,” or “Us and the Wilberforces always go on holiday together.” It may be just an ingrained attempt not to sound posh or academic.

Perhaps it’s just old pedants like, er, me who find the rogue “me” grating. But really, does it matter? English is a language with few inflections, and it seem we only mark case differences in pronouns: I/me, we/us, he/him, she/her, they/them, who/whom. With true nouns like “husband,” “movies,” and “cat”, we use the same word regardless of whether it’s the subject or object. Perhaps pronouns should simply be allowed to join the club, and we could prune them down to “me”, “her”, “him”, “us”, etc. Or so methinks.

0 Responses to “Me first”

  • Popular culture to blame? Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” from 1972 certainly gave the incorrect language a lot of exposure.