Friday, January 7, 2011

Pronoun Peeves: I or me, Thou or Thee?

I am not a grammarian, though in some ways I am the ultimate grammar geek. Linguistics isn't about learning "the rules" and how they work, but watching the patterns of natural language and trying to describe them. On the other hand, there are some grammatical errors that drive me up the wall. Misuse of "less" and underuse of "fewer." Constant overuse of "lay" when people should be saying "lie." I've been known to say to people who tell me they'll lay down: "Oh, you're going to LIE down? That's great!"

But this post is going to be about a different issue: first person pronouns.

First person pronouns are "I," "me," and "my." I'm happy to day that no one seems to misuse "my." "I" and "me" however are in a more complicated relationship.

When we were kids, we were told that when we spoke of ourselves and another person, it was more polite to put that person first.

"Josie and I went to the store."

I think I got the full explanation more often than most, but I suspect the result of all this instruction was a society-wide mantra of "Josie and I" "David and I" etc. and here's what it turned into:


Now some people say "and I" all the time, in every context. As a linguist, I can say the whole "and I" thing became like a fixed phrase and people stopped inflecting the pronoun for its position in the sentence.

Your sentence actually hasn't changed. Watch how it works when used properly.

I went to the store. Josie and I went to the store.
Notice: I went to the store is still there, just where it used to be. Josie just came along.

He started hitting me. He started hitting Taylor and me.
Notice: He started hitting me is still there. Just that Taylor got hit too.

He gave a book to me. He gave a book to my brother and me.
Notice: He gave a book to me is still there. My brother just happened to receive it too.

The way the grammar describes it feels more abstract, but really is only intended to describe what we just saw above. Use "I" when you're putting the pronoun in subject position, the position of someone who does something. Use "me" when you're putting the pronoun in object position (the second example) or indirect object position (the third example), where the person is either being done to or given to. If you use parallel sentences as I did above, you can easily show yourself the way it ought to go.

So what about "thou" and "thee"?

I've started seeing misuse of these archaic pronouns and feeling that itch to climb up walls again! I guess some folks are getting the idea that "thou" means "you" and so they're subbing it in anywhere they would ordinarily use "you."

Please don't do that. "You" just isn't a good grammatical parallel when it comes to "thou" and "thee."

The first thing you have to know is that these guys are actually singular familiar pronouns, used for informal or intimate conversation with one person and not for formal or group situations when even back then everyone would use "you." I highly recommend breaking out your Shakespeare and actually taking a thorough look.

If you want a quick guideline, though, the better pattern to follow is actually the pattern of the first person pronouns "I," and "me." Also, watch out and don't forget to conjugate your verbs!

Where you would use "I," use "thou":

I go there often.
  • Thou goest there often.
Do I go there often?
  • Dost thou go there often?

Where you would use "me," use "thee":

He leaves me here.
  • He leaves thee here.
He gives a gift to me.
  • He giveth a gift to thee.

Where you would use "my," use "thy" - but where you would use "our," use "your."

Give him my hand.
  • Give him thy hand.
Give him our blessings.
  • Give him your blessings. (both/all of you)

And here endeth the lesson. ;)


  1. Cool! It looks like I did understand those rules pretty well. I haven't used them in my writing, but I remember playing with the words when I was younger. My earliest source of examples came from my prayer book. Shakespeare came later.

  2. Sure, Jaleh! That's another good source of solid examples, and easily accessible. Thanks for mentioning it.

  3. The notable exception to this is Quaker plain speech, in which only thee is used, not thou, and only with contemporary verb forms. Thee is used for the particular (as opposed to general and also plural). The usage has changed from what Juliette described to a simplified and hence accessible and egalitarian form.

    "Would thee care for more spinach?"
    "Does thee go there often?"
    "I give my hand to thee."

    My husband, who is a Quaker, and I use plain speech between us, a tender reminder of how we cherish one another. It was a bit challenging at first, but soon came easily.

  4. Wow, interesting, Deborah! Thanks for explaining that - I'd never encountered it before. I think it's neat, and of course linguistically natural, that this kind of usage has evolved in a particular speech community. Cool stuff.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thanks for the tips. If it helps anyone, here's a simply way of looking at it—

    Subjects and predicates nominatives: use "I"

    Indirect objects, direct objects, and prepositional phrases: use "me"

    Archaic wants to make me pull my hair, so I don't use it if at all possible.

  7. Thanks, Beth! I did mine by parallels to help people for whom the grammatical-style rules were more opaque, but it's good to have them listed.

    Archaic doesn't necessarily bother me unless it seems - incorrectly done, - unjustified by world context, - stereotypical. It should be used carefully, that's for sure.

  8. Errors on thee/thou/etc (especially of the 'thou is super formal' variety) are a pet peeve, so thanks.

    Deborah, part of my family is Quaker and I read a book set a while back with Quaker characters who insisted on using 'thee' but I didn't remember that it was any different than the standard (old) usage, and I definitely had no idea it was still in use. In my family it isn't, but that may have to go with my grandparents having converted as adults (they were raised Presbyterian) and living in areas with few Quakers for most of their lives. I wonder if it's only in use in some communities - I mean, even after my grandparents moved to a Quaker retirement community I didn't hear it.

  9. Well, thank you for the comment, Thryn! Interesting thoughts on Quakers. I'm sure that language use can vary across widely disparate communities even within the same religious group.

  10. I always use the Bible as an example when explaining the difference between you and thou to my students. The Ten Commandments begin with "Thou shalt not...", because God doesn't need to be formal.

    Though German generally have an easier time grasping you versus thou, because the German language still has formal and informal second person pronouns. The use of I and me is less of an issue, too, because it matches the German usage very closely.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Cora! It makes sense that German speakers would have an easier time with this because the German pronoun system isn't quite as reduced as ours.

  12. Thanks also to Elizabeth Saunders, who left the following comment at my email after not being able to post here:

    Thanks for the post, Juliette. These are also peeves of mine. I'm writing a historical novel full of thou/thee and I had some polite arguments with other Quakers on my blog this summer. My community retained the grammatically correct "thou" and others use a nominative "thee." As a Quaker historian, I've been running across late 19th century letters with "thou," so I don't know if it's a regional use or has to do with the denominational split.

    Elizabeth, sounds like an interesting kind of research. Your novel sounds cool.