Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Stupid Me Again

Posted by Neal on October 10, 2008

In Jeffrey Seglin’s “The Right Thing” ethics column/blog post from a couple of months back, a reader had written in about her poor judgment regarding an ex-boyfriend:

Stupid me made his house payments, paid the bills, supported his drinking habit, bought new tires for his truck.

Stupid me has come up before in this blog, in another newspaper column from another woman berating herself for poor judgment regarding boyfriends. In fact, this seems to be a pattern: I looked for “stupid me” in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and found only one attestation with me used as the subject:

First you wanted to graduate from college. That was fine. No problem. I thought that was appropriate. Then you thought you should just get through the first two years of medical school. Even that was okay with me since I could get most of my Ph.D. coursework out of the way. But then you thought it best to put things off until you got yourself all the way through medical school. Are you detecting a pattern here or is it just me? Then the issue became getting the first year of residency behind you. Stupid me even accepted that, but now it’s the whole residency business. What about the fellowship deal you talked about last month? And then after that you might even think it best to wait while you set up your practice.
(Robin Cook, Shock, 2001)

There were also some attestations in which Stupid me was used as an appositive to the subject, along the lines of: Stupid me, I thought…. But apparently, to make a very hasty generalization, if someone uses “Stupid me” directly as the subject of a verb, it’ll be a woman berating herself for her naivete regarding men.

However, that wasn’t the main thing I wanted to talk about. Here’s where I was originally going: One of the rules that traditional grammar books are pretty good at teaching is to use the nominative form of a personal pronoun (I, he, she, we, they, and trivially, the nominative forms that look just like the accusatives: you, it) when it’s being used as the subject of a sentence. But rarely do they say what to do when you want to do anything more elaborate to that subject. About the most I’ve seen them do is to talk about coordinated pronouns, such as he and she, and give the rule about using whatever forms you’d use if you were using just one of the pronouns. But what do you do when you want to modify your pronoun with an adjective? The grammars I’ve seen leave their students high and dry on that one. The grammar book from my freshman-year English class in high school never talked about it. The ESL books I taught from never talked about it. Garner doesn’t talk about it. Even the descriptive MWDEU and CGEL don’t address this as far as I’ve been able to see.

What the grammar and usage guides ought to do, of course, is say to use the objective form when a pronoun is modified by an adjective, since phrases like *stupid I are clearly ridiculous. But I bet the first grammar book that notices adjectives modifying pronouns will go for the rule that’s easy to state but impossible to take seriously: Use whatever form you’d use if the adjective weren’t there.

Of course, I haven’t looked at every grammar book, and for all I know, one or more of them has, in fact, covered this topic. If you’ve seen it covered, who did it and what did they say?

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9 Responses to “Stupid Me Again”

  1. The Ridger said

    The only one of my grammars that even mentions this structure is CEGL, which says the pronoun must be in accusative, but the phrase can’t be a subject. The latter statement is clearly wrong – these constructions are all over the place as subjects. “Little old me”, “poor me”, “big brave you” and so on (of course, with “you” the whole “case” thing goes out the window. Why don’t people who complain about “to John and I” complain about the lost forms of “it” and “you”… or “John”, for that matter? But I digress).

    Here’s one from this Sep: What does this mean for you? Yes, little old you, reading this right now. Well, little old you is little old me, and little old me is every other person, and every other person is every single person on the face of this planet.

    I wonder if this is connected some way to using the accusative case in inverted phrases such as “here comes me”?

  2. The Ridger said

    Sorry, forgot the cite from CEGL, which I meant to give you since you said you hadn’t found it. It’s Ch 5, Section 10-2, page 430. Their example is *Poor you has got the night shift again, but that sounds fine to me, as does Poor me has got to clean up their mess again, though I agree that usually it’s a free-standing phrase, or an appositive (Lucky him! He gets the Bahamas trip, or Poor me, I have to …)

    And note the obligatory third-person verb (never “Poor me have to..”), as with “here come me” …

  3. MWDEU does say that “me” is used in “emphatic” positions, though its examples don’t include forms like “stupid me”. I think the argument could be made that “stupid me” is an emphatic use.

  4. Neal said

    Ridger:
    Thanks for the CGEL reference. As for the use of accusative in inverted phrases, I think there is a connection. Arnold Zwicky summed it up in the LL post that I linked to in the first “Stupid Me” post. (What, you guys don’t follow the links that I provide in the links that I provide?! OK, fine, here’s a shortcut.)

    Janet:
    You could be right about the emphatic use, but I worry about circularity. We can say, “We say stupid me and not stupid I because the use is emphatic,” but someone could just as easily come along and say, “We know this must be an emphatic use because look, we say stupid me and not stupid I.”

  5. The Ridger said

    Now it’s doubly stupid me. I remember reading that way back when, and I was trying hard to remember where it had been and couldn’t find it, and (obviously) a) didn’t spend enough time looking for it or b) click through so I wouldn’t have had to look at all…

  6. Ellen K. said

    I’m thinking that the pronoun isn’t the subject, but rather, the whole phrase “stupid me” is the subject. And then, by Arnold Zwicky’s logic (see comment 4 if you haven’t followed that link :)), it would be the accusative case.

  7. The Ridger said

    I would agree with that. Oddly, to me anyway, CEGL insists that pronouns modified with adjectives (such as “stupid me” or “lucky you”) can’t be used in subject position. But I sure hear it a lot, not to mention say it.

  8. the ridger said

    This must also be related to left-dislocation (Me, I’m never going back).

  9. Jorja said

    Haha cute

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