Who am I?
April 5, 2007 5:35 PM   Subscribe

English grammar question: Which is grammatically correct, "If I were not myself" or "If I were not me"? Or is it "If I were not I"?

It's a sentence that's rarely used, so the more I think about this, and the the more I check various grammar books and online sources, the more I become confused.

A few more:

"How to become myself" or "How to become me"?

"I play various roles of myself" or "...of me"?

"The 'me' who is too busy with her own life" or "The 'I' who is..."?

"The honest 'me' and the lying 'me' are both me" or "The honest 'I' and the lying 'I' are both I"?

I know some of these sentences sound awkward, and are perhaps better rewritten, but they're translations from Japanese and I'd like to keep them the way they are. They're variations of lines spoken in a movie about teenagers who are trying to find their identities as they grow up.

I suppose what all this boils down to is, is it "I am me" or "I am I" or "I am myself"?

As the Chicago Manual of Style says, "The verb “to be” acts as a linking verb, equating subject and object. (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/Pronouns/Pronouns09.html)
So "This is she" is correct and not "This is her," but the line is becoming fuzzy, is my understanding.

So in the cases above, which is correct? And would it be a big deal to the average native speaker of English if some of these were presented incorrectly as subtitles (i.e. so incredibly grammatically jarring as to take away from the experience of seeing the film)? Thank you for your help in advance.
posted by misozaki to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
In all cases, regardless of what Evil Prescriptivists and textbooks might declare, I would say that 'me' tends to be the preferred, less jarring usage.

For the first four examples, where 'myself' is possible, that'd be fine, too. That said, I don't know what the heck I'd do with the third one: "I play various roles of myself/me." That's just a bad sentence.

Your last example, I'd go with "The honest 'me' and the lying 'me' are both me" or "The honest 'I' and the lying 'I' are both me" as perfectly acceptable.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:44 PM on April 5, 2007


subject vs. object pronouns.
posted by tjenks at 5:46 PM on April 5, 2007


It's "me". And when the idiot on the phone says "Please use the phone to call Mr X or myself" then mean "or me". YOU can't call MYSELF, for one thing, since it's MY self.
posted by DU at 5:48 PM on April 5, 2007


The wikipedia page on reflexive pronouns should answer your question.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:55 PM on April 5, 2007


Try replacing the speaker as "he" and see what sounds right - he or him.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:37 PM on April 5, 2007


Use of the subjunctive "were" in "If I were not me" is correct, because you're suggesting a situation that doesn't exist. As for the myself/me question, I think DU is pretty much right. It's one of those pretentious things people say in an inept attempt to make you think they're all ejimicated and shit.
posted by scratch at 6:39 PM on April 5, 2007


"I am I" is usually correct; "I am me" is never correct. However, "to be oneself" is an idiomatic expression (for "to be one's normal self"), so if that's the sense of the first sentence, then "If I were myself" is correct.

As for the rest, it depends on the context. Most of them seem to be quoting some prior sentence. If the prior sentence used "I," then quote the "I"; if it used "me," then quote the "me." I either situation, the case used after "to be" should match the case used before it.

If, however, "me" is being used as a kind of technical expression (akin to "ego"), then it's fine as is.
posted by macrone at 6:40 PM on April 5, 2007


"I am me" is never correct

I'm going to have to take issue with that, depending on what you mean by 'correct'. Not that it's worth getting into yet another pre/descriptivism kerfuffle, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:50 PM on April 5, 2007


Thanks everyone. Your insights help a lot.

I hope I didn't open up a grammatical can of worms here, but I think it's the "the verb 'to be' acts as a linking verb, equating subject and object" rule that I cited above that gets me. I understand examples such as "I see myself" and "I like myself" but...

macrone, yes, "me" is akin to "ego" here. As in, the various faces that "I" show different people are all "I" ("myself"? "me"?) nevertheless, that sort of teenaged angst thing.
posted by misozaki at 7:02 PM on April 5, 2007


'"I am me" is never correct' is only rarely correct.
posted by hAndrew at 7:13 PM on April 5, 2007


Who is it?
It is me.
(The "It is I" folks are hyper-correcting.)
posted by klangklangston at 8:39 PM on April 5, 2007


Oh, and "If I wasn't myself." That's how it'll sound most natural.
posted by klangklangston at 8:39 PM on April 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


Second Stavros, prescreptivists be damned. One of the best and worst things about English is that we don't have the equivalent of the Académie française. As long as folks understand y'all it are good.

I don't know if English is your first language or your mastery of the subtleties of the language, but the best translations are those that most closely match original intent at the expense of correct grammar.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 9:21 PM on April 5, 2007


I actually says things like "This is he," and even I know that it, at best, borders on sounding pedantic and affected.

Clinging to a rule of putting the words on both side of "to be" in the nominative case would result in a lot of things that would sound weird to the average native speaker of American English. (I wouldn't claim sufficient authority to judge how everyone else would take it.)

"If I were not myself" or "If I were not me"? Or is it "If I were not I"?

"I'm not feeling like myself" is an idiom for feeling out of sorts, so in this case, I'd say the first two have significantly different connotations. But either could be fine, and the third is right out (unless maybe the speaker is supposed to sound weird and affected.)

"How to become myself" or "How to become me"? Probably the former; the latter could be ok depending on context.

"I play various roles of myself" or "...of me"? Ditto.

"The 'me' who is too busy with her own life" or "The 'I' who is..."? Definitely the former.

"The honest 'me' and the lying 'me' are both me" or "The honest 'I' and the lying 'I' are both I"? Definitely the former.

Or, ditto everything Macrone said after his first sentence.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:08 PM on April 5, 2007


What i think you are really trying to do is match meaning for meaning...understanding the intent of the Japanese phrase, and finding the best approximation in English. This is hard, for obvious reasons, but understanding that all three versions of the phrase "If I were not I(me/myself)" is key. We can use all three of these, and people do, to mean different things. Another problem arises, and that is that most phrases are largely context dependent. This is an attempt in defining a general meaning for each of the three, without context. Your interpretations may (and will) vary:
The verb "to be" can be problematic and difficult to interpret. I've replaced it with "to see" instead.

If I saw myself: this is probably the most common usage and usually refers to the subject (I) setting up a rhetorical setting, as in "If I saw myself in that dress, I would be embarrassed/____" In this case, the reflexive anaphor (myself) refers directly back to the pronoun (I).

If I saw me: Using "me" to refer to some representation of yourself. Ex. If I saw (a picture of) me in that dress, then I might feel better/silly/_____". In this case, the object pronoun (me) can refer to an entity outside the sentence. This is the pronoun (I) being objective. It's often done this way for emphasis or style purposes.

If I saw I: This is arguably ungrammatical, but If it's done somewhere by someone, then there's an interpretation to be gleaned. I would guess it to be a very pretentious hyper-correction. Which could likely mean "If I saw (the great and magnificent, all-knowing) I, it would be my life's purpose."

Long story short, trying to translate this sentence perfectly could easily become a lifetime of study in syntax and reflexive anaphora. And even then, meaning is still subjective. I would go with "I am myself" because that is the most common English usage, which is more likely to be closer to the intended meaning of the Japanese phrasing.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:51 PM on April 5, 2007


If I weren't who I am, would be what I would say. So, to shorten it, I guess "If I weren't I." which sounds... yeah.
posted by crayolarabbit at 11:54 PM on April 5, 2007


It's "me". And when the idiot on the phone says "Please use the phone to call Mr X or myself" then mean "or me". YOU can't call MYSELF, for one thing, since it's MY self.
Eh, myself in that context is fine—it can often be used as an emphatic for “I” or “me” without trouble. Such a use marked as especially Irish in the OED, but it’s not remotely rare in the best North American stylists.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 4:44 AM on April 6, 2007


The correct form is always "call/speak to/e-mail so-and-so or me" not "myself," unless your intent is to sound pretentious. The simple way to tell is to remove the "so-and-so" part. So, "call/speak to/e-mail me."

Myself is relexive, so there must always be a pronoun it is referring to, even if it is understood and not explicitly stated in the sentence: "I called myself on my cell phone to see if I had a good signal here." or "I need to take better care of myself."

So, from above:

"If I were not myself"

"(I need to know) How to become myself?" or "How do I become myself?"

"I play various roles of myself" (personally, I'd say many versions instead of various roles)

"The 'me' who is too busy with her own life" (me is an object and not reflexive)

"I am myself"


The preceding is thanks to my English professor boss in college who was such a perfectionist that more than one of us had to proofread everything.
posted by hankbear at 5:49 AM on April 6, 2007


stavros is correct about "I am me" and Aidan about "myself"; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (the only reliable, readily available guide to such things) says:
In the course of this article, you have seen examples spoken or written by some forty-odd people—poets, politicians, playwrights, novelists, essayists, diarists, statesmen, even lexicographers. The evidence should make it plain that the practice of substituting myself or other reflexive pronouns for ordinary personal pronouns is not new—these examples range over four centuries—and is not rare. It is true that many of the examples are from speech and personal letters... But the practice is by no means limited to informal contexts. Only the use of myself as sole subject of a sentence seems to be restricted...
In general, you should ignore anyone who says "X is incorrect, and everyone who says it that way is wrong"—that attitude is a sure sign that they don't know what they're talking about. As for the Chicago Manual of Style, it's a great guide to style for editors and others concerned with making printed text adhere to certain arbitrary standards; it's useless as a guide to English grammar, which is not its purview.
posted by languagehat at 5:57 AM on April 6, 2007


On lack of preview, hankbear is wrong, as is his English professor boss. Confident assertions are no substitute for actual knowledge.
posted by languagehat at 5:58 AM on April 6, 2007


In general, you should ignore anyone who says "X is incorrect, and everyone who says it that way is wrong"—that attitude is a sure sign that they don't know what they're talking about.
Except, you know, when they do. ‘Beamer’ for ‘digital projector’ in English is incorrect, and everyone who says it that way is wrong. ‘A training’ as a noun in English is incorrect, and everyone who says it that way is wrong. But then English professors rarely have to deal with non-fluent non-native speakers, who are much more prone to actual mistakes rather than perceived infelicities of register or tone.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 8:09 AM on April 6, 2007


The question was not whether x is accepted in general speech or not, it was which is more grammatically correct. And, if your intent is to sound pretentious, using myself in place of me in certain situations is proper.

Of course the language is evolving, and perhaps my English professor boss was too much of a traditionalist (and, certainly, this is now nearly 20 years ago), but pointing out examples of, admittedly, non-standard usage as an excuse for bad grammar is simply wrong. That's like saying that, since it is common usage, the then/than, their/there, or your/you're errors you see constantly on the web are perfectly acceptable. I hope that doesn't come to be, but I've been afraid of it for quite some time, now.

Perhaps, though, I should just point to someone else's confident assertion, someone who is much more qualified than I am: Common Errors in English Usage.
posted by hankbear at 8:22 AM on April 6, 2007


Except, you know, when they do

Well, yeah, that's why I said "in general." We're talking about alleged mistakes made by native speakers, not actual mistakes made by others.

The question was not whether x is accepted in general speech or not, it was which is more grammatically correct.

Right, and my point is that you don't know what "grammatically correct" means. It does not mean what you think is best, or what your English professor thinks is best, or what Paul Brians thinks is best. It means 'according to the grammatical structure of the English language,' and that structure is determined by analyzing how native speakers of English actually use it. Obviously not all speakers use it the same way, and one can separate out subgrammars for different regional and other dialects, but the differences are relatively minor (except for African American Vernacular English, which has substantially different grammar).

As for Common Errors in English Usage, it's an enjoyable site, and Brians is far more sensible than most usage mavens, but he's still an English professor, not a linguist, and he has no more standing to tell people how to use language than anyone else. If you agree with him about a particular usage, he's fun to quote because he writes well and vividly, but he is not an authority. MWDEU is an authority, not because the authors have degrees or prestige but because they cite evidence. Assertions are not evidence.
posted by languagehat at 10:50 AM on April 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thank you all for your responses; you've all been helpful. You see, I am a fluent speaker of English and can also write fairly well (I think) but technically not a native speaker; I am also not a linguist and the last time I studied English grammar was in junior high. But because I'm not native, I'm often asked to explain my word choices to the people who hire me to do translation work, and I needed to be able to say, "Well, I chose so-&-so because I thought it sounded better (or natural, or fit the context, or is "more generally accepted" etc.), although so-&so is more grammatically correct (but sounds weird, or pretentious, etc.)" So this thread itself helps, in the sense that I can show it and say, "Well, I asked this question on a forum on the Internet that I am a member of that I trust as having a bunch of people with a pretty good sense of what is acceptable or not in these areas, and this is what these people had to say." I understand that a question thread on a website doesn't have a standing in terms of being solid "evidence," but I'm not writing a thesis and it's more than enough in my case. So thanks again.


structure is determined by analyzing how native speakers of English actually use it

languagehat, thank you, I admit don't have a copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage and will see to it I get a copy immediately.
posted by misozaki at 5:23 PM on April 6, 2007


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