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Woe is us, Part 1

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  March 14, 2007 10:02 PM

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I've been reading the new book by Ben Yagoda, "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse" (you can read the first chapter here, and his recent piece in the L.A. Times on the gender-neutral pronoun -- also covered in the book -- here). And in the chapter on pronouns, I came upon this:

[When I answer the phone], how should I respond? Standard English mandates that the verb be be followed by the subjective case, which would have me say something like "This is he." . . .
But in the current millennium, that kind of thing sounds fatally stuffy. This is obvious to songwriters, who have given us such works as Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me" and (better yet) Crystal Gayle's "If Your Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me"; to Shakespeare, who had Ophelia say, "Woe is me"; and to the writers of the King James Bible, who used the same statement three separate times, including Isaiah 6:5: "Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone."

Woe, indeed. We are wandering in the grammatical wilderness when a college professor thinks that "Woe is me" is the unstuffy, 21st-century corruption of "Woe is I." It's not so: "Woe is me" is the original, genuine, and grammatically correct expression, and it has nothing to do with the predicate nominative. "This is he" vs. "This is him" is a different thing entirely.

Why "Woe is me"? Because Old English had a dative case (you may have met the dative in Latin class), the form used for the indirect object. In the sentence "I gave him the book," him is the indirect object; in Old English, it would have appeared in the dative case.

This is not arcane knowledge. The OED explains the use of woe "construed with a dative (or, later, its equivalent), with or without a verb of being or happening, in sentences expressing the incidence of distress, affliction, or grief." It has abundant examples of "woe unto me," "woe is me," "woe were us" and the like, from "Beowulf" to the late 19th century. There are no instances of "woe is I" or "woe is they."

So why the confusion? Well, it turns out the fog has been gathering for a while. But I'll leave the rest of this woeful tale for a later post -- or two.

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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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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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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