Monday, 1 August 2011

On 'Marley and me/I'

A correspondent writes with a query about the title of the book and film Marley And Me. He notes that some people think it should be Marley and I, and wonders which is correct. Is it something to do with the fact that it is in a title, he asks?

Titles, like newspaper headlines, often have a grammar of their own - but not in this case. Both forms are used. Along with Marley and Me in the world of titles we find Monkey and Me, My Bump and Me, Stieg and Me, Ann Boleyn and Me, and more. On the other hand we find Withnail and I, The Egg and I, Gillespie and I, The Duke and I, and others. There is even a minimal pair. In 2009 there was an exhibition of Murray Close's photographs from the set of Withnail: it was called Withnail and Me.

Plainly there's a choice, and that will depend on the general feelings one has about the use of me and I in everyday use. The point has been well discussed in the English linguistics literature, so I won't go into it in detail here. But most people sense a formality difference, with I more formal than me. There's also a pragmatic issue arising out of the way I has been privileged in prescriptive teaching over the past 200 years, so that some people are scared of using me - notwithstanding the fact that the and me or me and constructions have a history of usage dating from the 14th century (see OED under me, pron.1, n. and adj., sense 5), and are found in Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens and many other authors. The linguistics literature also has some interesting observations about the way the grammar of pronouns in a coordinate construction differs from that of pronouns used in isolation (for example, see §2.2 of the Cambridge grammar).

If it had been left to itself, I'm sure me would have been the normal usage in the short texts that constitute titles. Compare them with other self-contained pieces of 'block language' (as Quirk, et al would call it) or elliptical sentences. It's interesting that me seems to be privileged in these minimalist sentences, especially those that are exclamatory in character. Consider such examples as the following, none of which allow I:

Dear me! Goodness me!

Silly me! Funny me!
Me go by train? Never!
Me and my big mouth!
Me in Blackpool. [photograph caption]
I got told off - and me only trying to be helpful.
Me? [do you mean me?)
Me too. Me neither.

But of course it wasn't left to itself.

Prescriptive grammarians have a lot to answer for. Their insistence that I usage was correct (as in It is I) and me was incorrect, introducing a Latin rule which went against the natural idiom of English, produced generation after generation of conflicting intuitions and a sensitivity to their use which is still with us. The uncertainty that people feel is a direct result of the attempt to implement that artifcial rule. They don't like to use I in everyday speech because it's felt to be too formal. On the other hand they find me uncomfortable because they've heard that it's wrong. It's not surprising, then, to see the rise of alternatives - especially myself. Usages such as Jane and myself went to the cinema and They saw John and myself in the street are on the increase - an ancient usage, which remained alive only in a few regional varieties, notably Irish English, but which is widespread in British English now. (And outside of Britain? Comments, please.) So expect to see more examples of this in the next generation of book and film titles. We've already had Oscar Wilde and Myself, My Father and Myself, and a few others. If they ever remake the cult film, and feel the need to retitle, it could be Withnail and Myself.

28 comments:

Marc Leavitt said...

Professor Crystal:
I myself have often stopped to consider the distinction in normal usage. To this day, I find constructions such as "It is I" forced, unnatural and against the trends of normal speech, no matter how many grammarians (largely prescriptivist) insist that the verb "to be" is intransitive, and MUST therefore require the subject pronoun. What does it come down to? If I knock on your door, and you ask, "Who is it?" My normal response will be: "It's me." If I'm addressing a group of people, my default mode usually requires the subject pronoun. As to the increased frequency of "myself" as safe ground, here in the US I have always heard it. I don't think it has increased in frequency. What I DO think is that the QES and others of their ilk should use Latin, and let the English language go on its way.

Mary said...

Enjoyed both this post and Marc Leavitt's comment.

Haven't heard "Jane (for example) and myself" very often here in the U.S. South where I grew up and still live. However, such expressions as "I prefer chili with beans, myself" are quite common usage. One exception I might note to this: In much of Louisiana, that would be said as, "I prefer chili with beans, me" or "Me, I prefer chili with beans." French influence on the Cajuns? Don't know -- just would like to bring up the possibility.

DC said...

The reinforcing use of myself (as in I myself) is of course standard. It's the replacement of the pronoun by the reflexive that is the point at issue here. Incidentally, the OED (me, sense 5g) also mentions the French parallel.

Peter Harvey said...

In French it can only be 'et moi' (disjunctive) and in Spanish and German 'y yo' and 'und ich' (nominative) respectively. May I mention that I have looked at this on my own blog with particular reference to 'between you and ...'? http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2009/02/between-you-and.html

Oliver Lawrence said...

"Marley and Me" is good old fashioned alliteration; perhaps that had something to do with it, especially given there is likely to be a tussle of some degree between pure correctness and marketing where the title of a publication is concerned.

DC said...

Good point. And, now you mention it, I see alliteration in many of the other examples of titles too.

Carole Seawert said...

'I' is the subject of the sentence (or film title) and 'me' is the object.

Marley and I
Marley saw me.

When people say 'It's me' when they're on the end of the phone, they should technically say: 'It's I' - but no-one ever does. Well, apart from one pedantic friend I have. But this friend also writes 'phone and 'bus (!)

Anonymous said...

add one more to the list : 'me, myself and I'

;-)

Olivia Faix said...

To answer your question regarding usage of "myself" outside of Britain:

I'm from the U.S. (Philadelphia area), and to me, "myself" in sentences like Jane and myself went to the cinema and They saw John and myself in the street sounds awkward. I can't see a native speaker of American English saying that. I would say that Americans would likely use I or me in these situations. (We also would definitely say "movies" instead of "cinema".) "Myself" is generally used for emphasis (especially to indicate that you accomplished something with no help from others, for example: I did it all by myself; I guess I'll just do it myself), or to contrast with another recipient of the action of a verb (for example, I got her a drink and then poured one for myself).

DC said...

Can I remind readers that this post isn't about the general use of myself in English, so there's no need to go into other areas of its grammar.

It isn't possible to analyse titles in the same way as other sentences, so comments about 'subject' and 'object' are irrelevant. There's no way of deciding what the 'underlying' sentence might be, so an analysis in terms of ellipsis is pointless. It could be subject ('Marley and me is the title'), complement ('The title is Marley and me'), and so on.

I've no idea what 'technically' means, in Carole's post. I suspect she means: in terms of traditional prescriptive grammar. But to say 'should' in this connection is being just as pedantic as the mentioned friend! That kind of attitude gets no sympathy on this blog, as long-term readers will be aware.

A Mitton said...

This is a slight tangent, but I have a question regarding "It is I" as a response versus "It's me." Growing up, my mother always would reply "This is she" when people asked for her on the phone, and I do the same now (though I rarely hear it from other people). Is that an older form that has fallen out of use? Or more prescriptively correct, which my mother likes to be?

In regard to the discussion at hand, it seems that titles and headlines have an unwritten rule of doing what functions best for the work at hand—is it catchy, does it convey the feeling they want, etc. Oliver's comment about alliteration is definitely true. Creativity trumps prescriptive correctness, which (at least in my mind) is as it should be in this particular medium.

DC said...

Interesting one about 'This is she'. It strikes me as literary and archaic, and there may well be a prescriptive origin to it (though I don't recollect any mention of this usage specifically) or an upper-class preference - compare the use of third-person one for the first person (as in 'One fell off one's horse'). I'm not sure how far back the usage goes, but stylistically it echoes the nominal uses of the pronoun, such as we see in Shakespeare ('As any she belied with false compare'). Lots of examples of this in the OED under she sense 7a.

Alex_linguist said...

It's funny to see your post on this. Yesterday I had a discussion about case assignment in coordinated pronominal constructions.

I usually don't have prescriptivist tendencies, but as a teacher of English as a second/foreign language (and an advanced learner of English myself - so please excuse my non-native English idiom), one have to "invent" certain rules, to avoid ambiguity, at least with beginner and intermediate students. As a rule of thumb, I usually tell those students to use "I" as a subject and "me" in other positions. With advanced students, I give them a more realistic picture.

DC said...

Sure - but, as I've said earlier, in titles of the kind being discussed here the subject/object distinction doesn't apply. Note that it's not a matter of ambiguity. There is no problem in working out the meaning of these sentences. It's purely a matter of what counts as standard English.

I think it's good teaching practice to make students aware of the variation, even at a relatively early level, as far as listening/reading comprehension is concerned. These titles are quite frequently encountered, after all.

limr said...

I live in the NY metro area and I hear the described usage of 'myself' constantly. I grew up in the area, too, and have heard it (and been bothered by it) all my life.

Some typical examples:
"That pizza was for Vinny and myself, not for you!"

"Gina and myself, we went to the beach and got tan."

I guess considering Olivia Faix's comment above, this particular usage didn't even make it even a couple of hours south!

I have lived in other parts of the country but I can't remember if I'd heard it anywhere else. I think I was too busy being fascinated by regionalisms I'd never heard before than to notice if people were getting their pronouns right.

David Crosbie said...

I think many would agree that I has come to approximate to French je. It's essentially a stand-alone (non-conjoined) subject pronoun — although still used in conservative speech as a 'subject complement' pronoun — e.g. It is I.

[To clarify, I is not a morphologically defined nominative case form but a syntactically defined grammatical subject form.]

I've been involved recently in arguments about conjoined Iand I've come to the conclusion that it's turning into the unemphatic alternative to neutral me and emphatic myself. This is not yet the accepted standard, of course, but it seems to be rapidly approaching the status of a norm in casual colloquial speech.

In my judgement (others may disagree):

Between you and I is still stigmatised but (I believe) increasingly common.

John and me will go is stigmatised for its grammar but Me and John will go is stigmatised much more for its egocentricity, placing me first.

Report back to John and myself is approaching acceptability, and I told him to report back to John and myself is only a tad short of acceptable.

Richard Shakeshaft said...

Having read this post yesterday, I just found a call-centre operative's pronouncement that "That's all done for yourself" to jar. While I assume it's an attempt at feigned formality it was ruined by his valedictory "Have a great day!".

Alex_linguist said...

Regarding "myself": Martin Hewings in his Advanced Grammar in Use (2nd edition) argues that "using myself [in conjoined constructions - Alex] reduces focus on the speaker or writer and so sounds less forceful or more polite" (p. 120, section E).

Michael Swan in his Practical English Usage (2005) observes that "people often feel that these uses are fussy - too exact and unnecessary" (p. 476, section 493-5).

Alex_linguist said...

Just came across an interesting example of a conjoined construction (in Swan 2005, p. 404):

I often think of the old days and how you helped Bertie and I. (a letter from Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother to King Edward VIII)

So, one can't argue that the usage of "X and I/she/he/they" is indicative of their social class or educational background.

Guru Karim said...

Glad to read this post. As a non native English teacher in Indonesia,I've been asked about such problem quite frequently. however,it's problematic to answer this kind of question by explaining that "I" is subject and "me" is object to the students who are still beginners. Any suggestion?

DC said...

There are subjects and objects in their mother tongue, so as long as they develop an understanding of the grammatical contrast from that it should be possible to make use of the notion in relation to English.

Anonymous said...

When I was a child, I asked my mother/mum why the title of a British sitcom was "Hugh and I" (brilliant comedy, btw). She told me that was just the way posh people talked/spoke. That stuck with me. So when I want to sound posh, I use X and I, and when I'm not trying to impress, I use "X and me". Context is all.

John Cowan said...

Like Limr, I have lived in and around NYC all my life and have heard myself for me constantly. It makes me twitch, but I no longer erupt into prescriptive tirades about it, which is progress.

My mother said "This is she" on the telephone, which she must have learned prescriptively: she was born in Germany in 1919 and came to the U.S. in 1931. (It's not a calque of German Ich bin's, obviously.)

Anonymous said...

My school French teacher used to give what I thought was an excellent argument against the use of 'I' where 'me' is perfectly fine: only the most pedantic of native speakers would ever respond to the question 'Who is there?' with the answer 'I.' Even those who might normally say 'It is I' would use 'me' in this reduced version of the sentence.

Deb73 said...

Can you tell me why "I" has a capital letter and "me" does not? Also, I have just been discussing with a colleague whether or not the words "mum" and "dad" should ever be capitalised. I don't remember reading that they need to be in any punctuation book. Thanks.

DC said...

When 'I' developed as a single sound out of earlier 'ic/ich', there was uncertainty about how to write it, and various manuscript versions were proposed, such as i, I, j, y, and Y. Printers standardized on 'I', probably to avoid a confusion with 'i', which was also used for numerals.

Whether you capitalize nouns like 'mum/dad' depends on whether you see them as proper nouns or not. If yes, then capitalize; if not, don;t.

KateGladstone said...

" Usages such as 'Jane and myself went to the cinema ... John and myself" are quite common in the USA.

Alex said...

"Me" is disjunctive, as far as I know. It just depends on what is considered the unmarked form; nominative and possessive case is marked, but "me", the accusative, is the default for all other semantic relations which are expressed like "to me", "with me", "from me". This is salient because I/me/my is a genuine case system hold-over as far as I know.

In "Withnail and I", it's still OK, but there is presumably an ellipsed predicate, or it's hypercorrection.