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Me, myself and I

If you ever caught the estimable Patricia Routledge in an episode of Keeping Up Appearances, you saw a vivid demonstration of the terrible, terrible struggle of the middle class to appear genteel.

We see evidence of the strain in clothing (articles blazoned with a designer’s logo), architecture (scaled-down chateaux and neo-Victorians dotting treeless lots where once the corn grew high) and automobiles (the Land Rover for the trek across the veldt to the supermarket).

We also see it in language. We hear it when the t is pronounced in often, though speakers of English have been saying offen since Philip Sidney was a schoolboy. We hear it in the finicky hyperpronunciation of foreign names favored by announcers on classical music stations — Bach uttered as if the speaker had suffered a sudden onset of catarrh.

We see it particularly in anxiety over the first-person, singular pronouns.

Me is apparently to be avoided at all costs, presumably because of some association with the coveralled classes, or perhaps Tarzan. Thus between you and I from people who fail to grasp the finer points of the preposition and its objects.

But I, too, is risky, because there is some vestigial sense that it is not quite the thing to call too much attention to oneself. Thus the popularity of myself, which, being a disyllable, is a little grander and somehow circumspect: Then the wife and myself enjoyed a platter of cheese puffs at the cotillion.

The tension between continually putting oneself forward while wondering whether it would be better to hold back must be excruciating, what with the constant dread of being exposed as Not Quite Fitting In.

Best to keep things simple: I for subject, me for object, myself as a reflexive rather than a substitute for I or me. I myself wouldn’t presume to tell you how to talk; it’s not up to me. But then, I’m not a member of the club.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 PM | | Comments (4)
        

Comments

Bach is a nice example.

But my favorite hyperforeignism is an English word that some of our TV and radio colleagues like to pronounce with an enthusiastic German accent: Munich.

Hi John,
I enjoy sociological language comment as much as the next Nancy Mitford fan, but I am increasingly reluctant to sign on to the idea that we know the motive for any particular pronunciation choice. My daughter, for instance, was brought up in an "offen"-speaking house. She came back from U. of Michigan saying "of-Ten." (Also "anyways.") And with an English degree -- she's now a teacher.

I seriously doubt that the Michigan undergrads were trying to sound genteel.

On another topic: People (including me) have more or less trouble pronouncing Latin endings in English consistently (alumnae, antennae) depending on how much Latin, and which flavor, they were taught. I've surveyed friends on this. It's not about pretension, it's about what you were drilled on at 14 by Miss Mossman.

Finally, even if a word begins as a genteelism, nobody in the next generation of speakers is going to know that. Those people simply say it the way they hear it -- as we all do.

So here's another National Grammar Day proposal: Why don't we hold off on impugning the motives of unknown fellow citizens whose pronunciation is different from ours?

Cheers, Jan
freeman at globe.com

Dear Doctor,

Tuesday last, I worked as a member of the Baltimore County (Maryland) Board of Election cavassers. Facing a twenty hour day, I carried somethinngs to read, The Elements of Style (3rd. Ed.) and Team of Rivals. I am wonder whether you can cure me or if there is a way to do it myself?

Thanks,

Shoed B. Committed

(I love that program, or programme.) I remember Jimmy Carter, in press conferences, used to rely on the locution "Secretary of State Vance and myself have discussed..." Since a metro editor wisely at the time told me never to edit speech, I was sympathetic to the president. Clearly, speaking to the public without prepared notes, he did not want to make the "me" or "I" mistake. In my view, the most common hypercorrection of the educated class involves "I feel badly," as if "I feel bad" were erroneous.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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