I Before Me, Except After . . .: Using I vs. Me

Something I’ve been thinking about lately, due to various things I’ve seen online and at work, is the use of I-constructions versus me-constructions. This, in part, gets back to misleading information and simplified rules for instruction. For instance, I’ve written previously (I think) about history instruction—in K-8, in the U.S. we’re taught that everyone in 1492 thought the world was flat (except Columbus), in 9-12 the Vikings may be mentioned, in college-levels, we’re told that the ancient Greeks determined the Earth’s volume and circumference mathematically over 1500 years before Columbus and that Columbus was working off of Viking maps that were already 300-400 years old.

 We commonly tell beginning writers to never, under any circumstances, use “I” in a formal paper. This is not necessarily a rule, per se. Rather, it is a method of helping early writers learn to get rid of potentially problematic language or bad habits. There is nothing inherently wrong about using “I” in formal writing. What is a problem is the words that tend to show up around “I”, such as “I believe”, “I think”, and “In my opinion”. These phrases are not conducive to strong arguments, because they all lack conviction and confidence. They all say “This is my belief (not arguable or provable) or opinion (again, not necessarily provable or arguable).” They imply a lack of evidence, because they phrase the claim as a belief or opinion. Removing the “believe”, “think”, “opinion” language creates a strong, more confident statement that implies the presence of evidence (that the writer will, presumably, provide forthwith).

 Another big one is the compound subject construction (two or more subjects). We are often told, in K-12, that the proper construction is “My friends and I” or “John and I”, not “Me and my friends” or “John and me”. This is not true, in fact it is outright false. The context matters greatly. For example:

1) “My grandfather and me went fishing together.”

2) “He and I went to get lunch.”

3) “This is a photo of John, Jane, and I.”

4) “Our parents found Mary and I.”

To determine which pronoun (I or me) is correct, we read the sentence without the other part of the compound subject, so:

1) “Me went fishing.” (Incorrect, should be “I”)

2) “I went to get lunch.” (Correct)

3) “This is a photo of I.” (Incorrect, should be “me”)

4) “Our parents found I.” (Incorrect, should be “me”)

Hopefully that clears up usage a bit.


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