June 9, 2012 | Review Period

Me et Moi

French makes me muse about pronoun forms in English.

Now we are at Brandt’s 25th college reunion in Williamstown, Massachusetts. We graduated from college the same year, but in different parts of the same state.

In a break between reunion activities, I found Tunnel City Coffee to be a good place for espresso and grammar study.

Tunnel City Coffee, Williamstown

Tunnel City Coffee, Williamstown

Jacques et moi sommes à Chicago. That means, “Jack and I are in Chicago.”

What I find interesting about such a sentence is that with French you would not say Jacques et je, which would seem to correspond most closely to “Jack and I” in English. In a similar construction in Spanish, you would use yo (meaning “I”), and in Italian you would use io (also meaning “I”). These last two are just the standard nominative forms, so I am pretty sure French is special in this situation, at least among the Romance languages I’ve encountered to date.

By the way, in German you would use ich (standard nominative “I” again).

In French, on the other hand, you use moi, which is called a “disjunctive pronoun.” 

In the following, too, you would use a disjunctive form: Caroline est plus intelligent que lui. Not il. This one is an example from the book Complete French Grammar by Annie Heminway. 

Ah, and here’s a comparable Italian disjunctive. Lui è più alto di me. 

Generations of American students have been taught to render the English equivalent of this Italian sentence in this way: “He is taller than I.” The thing is, very few people want to say that in English. Virtually everyone says “me,” and if you understand “than” to have a prepositional function rather than a conjunctival function (which I pretty much do in that construction), “me” is fine.

To clarify: if it conjunctival, that means you consider “than” to be introducing the implied clause “than I am.” Even without the verb, that argument goes, you should keep the pronoun in nominative form.

If you see “than” as prepositional, however, then “me” would just be the object of the preposition and you are done. This is how I see it. This is how the French apparently see it. This is how Italians apparently see it. (Unless those languages are harboring additional mysteries of which I am unaware, which is entirely possible.)

Other languages can be instructive about our own.

Don’t get me wrong, I still tend to say “He is taller than I.” It is one of those things: many highly educated people think “me” is just plain wrong, and it is hard sometimes to find the personal strength to buck that kind of convention, especially since “I” is an accepted choice. But I don’t actually want to say “I” in that sentence.

You know, as I think about it, I believe I would feel a great deal of relief if I could start saying “me.”

Maybe on a day where I wake up with a little extra courage I will try it out.

Comments (1)

Tim • Posted on Wed, August 01, 2012 - 1:06 am EST

I’m no expert on the history of English grammar books, but I have to assume the harsh distincto between subjects and objects comes from trying to make English grammar fit into a Latin framework.

It’s ironic, then, that French, which actually cmes from Latin, has a much more nuanced, practical approach. As you know, the disjunctive pronouns can serve as objects of prepositions, but they can also indicate a nominative if it falls anywhere other than the standard SV position in the sentence. Or they can emphasize a pronoun of virtually any grammatical case. In other words, the choice of “moi” over “je” depends on the fact that “moi” draws attention to itself, so its role is to refer to yourself in any non-standard situation. It’s a matter of sound, not of case. I find it rather refreshing that the French logic (here, at least) is based on practical usage, not an arcane set of prescriptive rules.

English isn’t Latin, so by all means say “than me.”

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