Woe is I – A Controversy

Did this post’s title make you look twice?

In the locker room at the local YMCA this winter, I overheard an interesting discussion, where many such conversations take place on all sorts of topics, including books, current events, and life. Some members were bemoaning the decline in the use of the English language. What they really meant, of course, was that people were not following the prescribed rules of Standard English; in particular, they objected to people saying “It’s me” or “This is her” when answering the phone, as well as sentences like this one: “Me and Bobby McGee are going to the movies.”

Amused, I added my two cents, saying, “Woe is I.” This startled some people. If this phrase also takes you up short, that’s not unexpected.

 “Woe is I” is not the phrase we’re used to. “Woe is me” is the common expression.

Woe is I is also the name of a book by the highly regarded writer and usage expert, Patricia O’Conner. In some of my posts, I’ve quoted material from this book and others, as well as from her website.

In her blog, O’Conner explains that she intended the title as a dig at those who insist on “rules” of Standard English (often revealed as myths on this blog, such as never splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition).

Calling the purists’ attitude “hypercorrectness,” O’Conner goes on to say that with her title Woe is I, she is poking fun at their adherence to a particular rule: it is the one that requires the nominative case – also called the subjective case – to come after the verb to be.

We’ve talked about pronouns in several posts including the ones on possessive and reflexive pronouns, pronoun antecedent agreement, and vague pronoun reference. In these posts, we covered many of the basics of pronouns, including how they substitute for nouns and other characteristics of pronouns. However, unlike nouns, pronouns change their form based upon what function they play in a sentence. This is known as case, and there are three in English: subjective (nominative), objective, and possessive.

Subjective: He wrote the book. (he functions as a subject)

Objective: Give the book to him. (him is an object)

Possessive: This is his book. (his is a pronouns showing possession: who owns the book)

O’Conner refers to this traditional rule: because linking verbs, such as to be, connect a subject to a word that describes or identifies that subject, when that word is a pronoun, it must be in the subjective case. (Be is the most common of the linking verbs, and it has eight forms: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being, which we discussed in the post on verb forms.)

As merriam-webster.com points out, “a linking verb is akin to an equals sign.” Thus, the “correct” sentence is “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It’s me.” Following this rule, the correct expression would be “Woe is I,” not “Woe is me.” In a 1993 column, “Woe Is Not Me,” language maven William Safire insists on just this point: that woe is equated with (equals) me and “the grammatically pristine form” is “Woe is I.”

This is what O’Conner calls hypercorrectness, since using the phrases “It is me” or “This is her” (when answering the phone) is now considered acceptable, or as merriam-webster.com states, “purely a matter of style.” The “grammatically pristine” forms (“It is I” and “This is she”), O’Conner says, are excessively formal and can make people sound ridiculous “when we go overboard in the name of correctness.”

The use of the objective forms me and her is also understandable given the usual word order of the English language, which we discussed in this post on grammar: Subject – Verb – Object. Actually both the subjective and objective forms have been used for centuries, but as with most of the usage rules, it was in the 1700s as prescriptive grammars began being produced when the proper or correct usage became a subject for debate.

The controversy deepens, of course. Not everyone agrees that “Woe is I/me” is an example of using the appropriate pronoun case with a linking verb.

“Woe is me” is idiomatic, a common phrase that means something different from its literal meaning; it is so common that its expression is natural to a native speaker, which is what causes the consternation when we hear “Woe is I.”

Woe is me does not mean Woe = me, or I am woe.

Rather, it means “I am distressed or sad or grieved” (phrases.org.uk).  As merriam-webster.com elaborates, “it is used in a humorous way to say that one is sad or upset about something.”

Usage experts date the phrase back to the 14th century, in Wycliffe’s Bible translation of 1382. It appears as “Woe unto me” several times in Job and as “woe is me” in the books of Psalms, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. In 1602, Shakespeare has Ophelia utter “Woe is me” in a soliloquy in Hamlet (phrases.org.uk).  

This camp argues that the phrase is derived from Old English. Arrantpedantry.com provides an example from Old English, “Wa biþ þonne þæm mannum,” which translates “Woe be then [to] those men.”

In the posts on parsing the English sentence and on the history of the English language, we discussed how Old English was a more highly inflected language, its word endings indicating the case of the words in a sentence. Old English had 4 cases, not the 3 of modern English: in addition to subjective, objective, and possessive, it had the dative case.

Other highly inflected languages like German or Latin have the dative case, and it is used to indicate the recipient or beneficiary of an action, corresponding roughly to direct and indirect objects. For example, “Maria Jacobo potum dedit” is Latin for “Maria gave Jacob a drink.” In this sentence, the direct object of the verb gave is “a drink,” while “Jacob” is the indirect object. (Notice that that the Latin phrase does not follow the English word order of S-V- Object; it is the inflections or endings that tell the case or functions of the words.)

Thus, the phrase “Woe is me” is a remnant of the dative case in whichwoe is the subject and me is a dative object, something that isn’t allowed in English today” (arrantpedantry.com).

O’Conner doesn’t discuss the argument of the dative case, and Safire dismisses it. So, not only is it a matter of style, but also a matter of opinion. Just remember that because “Woe is me” is such a common idiom, if you follow Safire’s camp, be prepared to make people look twice when you insist on saying “Woe is I.”

(For more information, see Patricia O’Conner’s website; merriam-webster.com on predicate nominative usage and on woe is me; Safire, “Woe Is Not Me”; phrases.org.uk; arrantpendantry.com; Latin dative example.)

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