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Woe is us, continued

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  March 26, 2007 09:18 PM

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A couple of weeks ago, I ranted about the grammatically misunderstood woe is me, and promised (or threatened) to return to the question. And here I am, with a tentative diagnosis: I'm betting that Patricia O'Conner's catchy book title, "Woe Is I," has a lot to do with our current confusion.

Before that 1996 usage guide hit the bookstores, most people knew the idiom was woe is me, and most people never gave it a second thought. Now uncertainty reigns, and no wonder: O'Conner herself hasn't yet got the grammar straight.

Last fall, on her Q&A blog Grammarphobia, O'Conner answered a reader who wondered why the title was not "Woe Is Me" or "Woe Am I":

I chose the title "Woe Is I" to poke fun at hypercorrectness. The butt of the joke is the old rule of English grammar (now considered excessively formal) that required the nominative case after the verb “to be.” (Example: using “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It's me.”) . . . Here’s how I put it in the preface to the second edition:
“While ‘Woe is I’ may appear technically correct (and that’s a matter of opinion), the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit -- or an author trying to make a point -- would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”

Beside the point, almost every word of it. As I said in my previous post, woe is me has nothing to do with the predicate nominative. Woe is I is not "technically correct," and that is not just "a matter of opinion." "Woe is me" has been good English not merely "for generations" but (linguistically speaking) forever.

But O'Conner is not alone in her grammatical muddle. William Safire is also confused about woe is me, and, worse, he likes it that way.

In a 1993 New York Times column, Safire -- defending the likes of "it's me" -- wrote that "The grammatically pristine form of 'Woe is me' is 'Woe is I' (or even 'Woe am I'), but go tell that to Ophelia and Isaiah."

Bales of mail soon arrived, Safire reported, informing him that "the pronoun here is not a nominative at all: it is a dative. . . . In 'Woe is me,' the noun is not being equated with the pronoun. The meaning is 'Woe is to me' or 'Woe is unto me.' "

He continued his recap:

My interpretation of Shakespeare and the Bible held that, in this use, woe and me were one and the same, and my point was to show a long history of the use of the objective me, when formal usage would dictate the nominative I. After all, if both Shakespeare's heroine and the biblical prophet said, "Woe is me," who are the predicate nominatarians to insist on "Woe is I"?

And now, said Safire, I have to learn about the dative? He dutifully added a paragraph explaining how it worked, but his conclusion was, essentially, Dative, shmative:

I think Shakespeare knew what he was writing. If he had wanted to say, "Woe is to me," he would have said it (or if the poetic meter required three syllables, "Woe is mine"). Contrary to the opinion of all my activist-dativist correspondents, I think he did intend to equate woe and me. Sometimes the truth lies flat on the surface.

Indeed it does, and here it is: For 400 years before Shakespeare, the written record shows people using woe is me, woe is us, woe is unto me, woe to them. It was ordinary English. If Shakespeare had written "Woe is I," we might want to examine his reasons, but "woe is me" requires no deep interpretation.

Woe is us, indeed, when writers who claim to love language and grammar care so little about the facts.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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