Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Me and My Shadow and Bobby McGee

          The commonplace use of “Me and my . . .” as the subject of a sentence has long been the bane of English teachers everywhere. “Me and my friends went to the mall,” students will say. Or “Me and Harry are going out for football.” Consider this exchange I had with a student a few years ago:

                       Clara: “Can me and Amy go to Guidance?”
                     Me: “May.”
                     Clara: What?”
                     Me: “May Amy and I go to Guidance?”
                     Clara: “You need to go to Guidance? Me and Amy do too.”
                     Me: “I think I actually do, right about now.”

          She hadn’t a clue. But the “Me and my . . .” phrasing has a long history in American popular culture. In 1917, the song “For Me & My Gal” was a vaudeville hit. “Me and my Shadow” was a popular 1927 song that was revived periodically down through the decades. In 1932, the movie “Me And My Gal” starred Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. Ten years later, “For Me & My Gal” was heard again in the film of that title, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. And DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox are aiming for a 2018 release of a 3-D animated film entitled “Me and My Shadow.” So the phrasing has long been enshrined in the language and, it seems, will continue to endure for the younger generations.
            The ungrammatical construction “me and . . .” as the subject (doer) of a sentence, then, is by now ubiquitous. How often do we hear sentences that start “Me and my friend . . .” ? Yet, it’s not just the younger generations who do so. It’s so entrenched in the vernacular, that we’re likely to hear it voiced in everyday conversations, interviews across the social spectrum, TV scripts and commercials, and, of course, on social media. The mistake occurs so often now that it actually sounds “right” to many, perhaps to most. My wife kids me that I must be wrong about it, but its frequency is precisely what makes it so challenging for young people, in particular, to overcome. It simply sounds so “right.”
            The problem is with the pesky pronoun—is it “I” or “me”? Grammatically, it should be “My friend and I” as the subject of a sentence, which is usually found before the verb, that is, to the left of the verb, in English. I used to teach my students a sure-fire means of knowing which pronoun to use. In the sentence “My friend and (I or me?) went to the movies,” I’d tell them to mentally remove the words “My friend and” to make their ears reliable again. We would never be tempted to say “Me went to the movies,” and so we should never say, “My friend and me went to the movies.” Just as “I” do things, “My friend and I” do things.
            In 1971, Janis Joplin’s version of the hit song “Me and Bobby McGee” entrenched another unconventional flaw in the vernacular of American youth:
               But feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues, 
               You know feeling good was good enough for me, 
               Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.                                       

Joplin’s posthumous version of the song, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, would become one of the greatest blues rock classics, and deservedly so. Her rendition exudes the blues, imbuing the lyrics with a depth of raw aching feeling unparalleled in any other cover of the song. Even today it is revered as one of the best rock songs of all time.
            The phrasing “for me and Bobby McGee” is actually grammatical: “Good enough for me”—remember to remove the words “and Bobby McGee” to make your ear reliable again. But the phrasing ignores the grammatical etiquette of putting oneself last. (Perhaps it can be forgiven there, since “Good enough for Bobby McGee and me” just doesn’t scan.) “Me and my friend” ignores the etiquette too. But “My friend and me” is still inappropriate as a subject (doer) in a sentence. It’s a matter of grammatical case, one of the few areas where English is still an inflected language. That is, while meaning is usually conveyed by the placement of words in an English sentence, English words still inflect, or change their form, in a few instances. Whether a personal pronoun like I, he, she, or they changes its form to us, him, her, or them) depends on whether we're using it as the subject (doer) of a sentence (usually before, or to the left of, the verb) or as an object (usually after, or the right of the verb or preposition). So we would say, “My friend and I gave him the tickets,” but “He gave the tickets to my friend and me.) Just remember to mentally remove “and me” to make your ear reliable again. No one would be tempted to say, “He gave the tickets to I.”
          The English language—especially the vitality of spoken American English—continues to evolve every year. Who knows? Perhaps “Me and my friends went to the mall” may someday be widely embraced as grammatically correct. We used to make a distinction between shall and will when I was a boy, and we’re in the midst of such a shift with who/whom today. But we’re not quite there yet, and we’re still a far way off from “Me and my friends” as the subject of a sentence being acceptable in any formal setting. 
          But then, what it always comes down to, I think, is whether or not we see language as power. Among those aware of the "Me/I" distinction--and there are still many out there--which candidate is more likely to be offered the job, all other qualities being equal? The one who says, “Me and my last boss thought I should take a risk on that project.” Or the one who says, “My last boss and I . . .” ?