The Grammar Page
WARNING: Explicit illustrations of grammatical errors!


Is It Me, Myself, or I?

"Well, it ain't me!" "It's not myself!" "So it must be I."

Yes, it is I. I am it.

When I was in the second or third grade in the 1950s, our teacher had a game to teach us to say, "It is I." One student would be chosen to sit in a chair at the front of the room. The other students would stand in a line behind the chair and in turn would knock on the back of the chair. The student in the chair would ask, "Who is it? and the one who knocked would have to reply "It is I." If the student answered "It's me." instead, that student had to sit in the chair until someone else made a mistake. We all soon learned to say "It is I."

The story of the Little Red Hen taught a similar lesson. When the hen asked, "Who will help me bake my bread?" "Not I!" said the cat, "Not I!" said the dog, and the other animals made the same reply. This same pattern of question and response was repeated over and over as each step in the process of making bread was identified. Of course, when the Little Red Hen asked, "Who will help me eat my bread?" The responses changed to "I will!" I haven't read all of William Bennett's Book of Virtues but someone gave me an audio version that included the story of the Little Red Hen. In that audio version the animals replied, when asked to help, "Not me!" "Not Me!" No wonder our nation's educational system is in a mess!

However, the British now consider, "It is me." to be correct, although they would probably ask "Is it she?" And now the National Geographic says, "Is it really her?" in the Afghan refugee's story in the April 2002 issue. Recently the Houston Chronicle for Friday, June 13, 2003 there is a big, bold headline "It's her ... isn't it?" on page 3A.

Here is an example of another pronoun problem that children have: "Can me and Johnny go to the store?" Our mothers and teachers taught us to say 'May I' not 'Can I'" "May Johnny and I go to the store?" This was so thoroughly drummed into our heads that many of us created a false mental rule that the conjunction and requires a pronoun in the nominative case. This was especially true among athletes, sports reporters, police officers, preachers, and engineers. I have heard a preacher say something like this: "Be sure to thank he and his wife for their generous gift." I think I've heard this one, too, "This award is presented to he and she for their special achievement." I have heard engineering managers say, "Give copies of the report to Bill and I for review before releasing it." "Mrs. Smith only made reservations for you and I." Well meaning friends tried to correct them, of course, but it left them confused. If me was wrong some of the time and I was wrong some of the time, perhaps a completely different pronoun would work. Thus the truly terrible error, "Bob and myself will take care of it." Or "When you're a leader of a team like myself, . . ." Our county assistant district attorney made a similar mistake yesterday during a jury voir dire. The reflexive, or self/selves, pronouns are used to intensify or repeat an antecedent noun or pronoun. "Mother, I'd rather do it myself!" is a correct example from a commercial. "I hurt myself." is an example from Barron's Essentials of English. "I, myself, am responsible for this mess." is my example. The reflexive pronouns will always have a noun or another pronoun to refer to. And remember there is no theirself or theirselves in Standard English.

Another pronoun error that I often hear now (even in television news shows) has to do with pronouns that introduce gerund phrases. (I don't know a gerund from a participle, but I have a reference book that explains them.) Possessives are usually used to introduce gerund phrases. "My being chosen leader was a source of consternation to the group." "The members of the carpool were upset at his being late each morning." Many people would incorrectly use me rather than my and him rather than his. Barron's provides two examples in which possessive pronouns are not used. It is correct to say "He slipped away without anybody in the room noticing him." because the pronoun anybody is separated from the gerund phrase by in the room. "He slipped away without anybody's noticing him." is correct because the pronoun is near the phrase noticing him. The second example is illustrated by "Luis saw him leaving the parking lot." The objective case is used with verbs like see, hear, and watch. "His leaving the parking lot was a source of surprise to Luis." is also correct for the previously stated reasons.

A related error is seldom heard because the sentence form it appears in is seldom used. The incorrect version: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." The objective case pronoun, him, should be used. If you just ignore the modifying adjective clause, it should be apparent that him is correct. "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7b RSV) Those who make this error apparently feel that adjacent pronouns should be in the same case (and no one uses whom anymore!) This was the headline over a humor column in a major newspaper: "Let He Who Is without Laughs Tell the First Joke." The column writer blamed the newspaper editors for writing the headline.

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A Very Irregular Verb

This verb is so irregular that it is seldom spoken. Its present tense form is the same as the present tense of a verb meaning to make a false statement. Its past tense is the same as the present tense of a verb meaning to place (as on a surface) . Its past participle is a homophone of a noun meaning a narrow roadway or a part of a larger roadway. You probably have guessed that the verb is lie meaning to recline. The other lie means to make a false statement. The past tense forms of these two verbs are, respectively, lay and lied. The verb to lay means to place. Its past tense is laid and its past participle is also laid. The past participle of lie (to recline) is lain pronounced the way lane is pronounced.

I once told a paint and body shop manager, "I left the bumper lying on the ground in front of the car." He said, "You mean 'laying on the ground' don't you? Inanimate objects can't lie!"

It's true that inanimate objects can't lie, but they can lie! He had the rule backward. It should be: "Inanimate objects can't lay." Even some animate objects can't lay. Dogs can't lay. Cows and pigs can't lay. But hens and bricklayers can.

The book Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay* (*and that's no lie) by Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis gives "Practical Advice For The Grammatically Challenged." It discusses this grammatical problem and many others in a humorous way. It's a fun read and I recommend it as a help for everyday problems with grammar.

Do you remember the song lyric that really should have been "Lie, lady, lie. Lie across my big brass bed?" Poets and songwriters should be allowed some poetic license, but I think that "Lay, lady, lay. Lay across my big brass bed." was a little too much. Perhaps Bob Dylan assumed that an object of lay, such as your coat or your body, would be understood.

I have learned that I am just a recent addition to the 200-year old chorus protesting the use of lay when lie is meant. The 10th Addition of Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary says this about this grammatical error:

Usage LAY has been used intransitively in the sense of "lie" since the 14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since. Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in familiar speech and is a bit more common in general prose than one might suspect. Much of the problem lies in the confusing similarity of the principal parts of the two words. Another influence may be a folk belief that lie is for people and lay is for things. Some commentators are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do so slowly: many people have invested effort in learning to keep lie and lay distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.

Never write: "I'm going to lay down now." Speak that way if you want to be part of the crowd, but don't put it in writing.
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Confusing Colloquial Contraction

Our choir members were given new country gospel hymnbooks to review and I noticed this title: He'd Still Been God!

"What this?" Was it a contraction for He Had Still Been God" ? No, that made no sense. Maybe it meant He Would Still Been God. " That couldn't be it either. Then I realized that the author was trying to say He'duh Still Been God! We talk like that in the South. Statements like "I gotta go" and "I wooduh been there, but my car broke down." are common.

The contraction in the song title is derived this way. He would have becomes He would of which slurs into He wooduh and finally He'duh. But printing He'duh in a gospel hymnbook just wouldn't have looked right, would it?

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Common Errors in English - An Excellent Site!
I Highly Recommend It!
This is the REAL Grammar Page!
Ask the Grammar Goddess of The Business Journal of Southeastern Massachusetts. This column is very helpful and easy to understand.
English Grammar Gone Awry - A Guide to Some of the Most Common Errors in the Usage of the English Language. This is an excellent guide.
Guide to Grammar & Writing - An excellent, comprehensive guide.
Oh My Grammar! Language Felonies: Top 10 Grammar Errors, Common Mistakes, and the Importance of Correct Grammar (Infographic)An infographic by GrammarCheck


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