Arrant Pedantry

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Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?

I recently received an email asking about the expression woe is me, namely what the plural would be and why it’s not woe am I. Though the phrase may strike modern speakers as bizarre if not downright ungrammatical, there’s actually a fairly straightforward explanation: it’s an archaic dative expression. Strange as it may seem, the correct form really is woe is me, not woe am I or woe is I, and the first-person plural would simply be woe is us. I’ll explain why.

Today English only has three cases—nominative (or subjective), objective, and genitive (or possessive)—and these cases only apply to personal pronouns and who. Old English, on the other hand, had four cases (and vestiges of a fifth), and they applied to all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Among these four were two different cases for objects: accusative and dative. (The forms that we now think of simply as object pronouns actually descend from the dative pronouns, though they now cover the functions of both the accusative and dative.) These correspond roughly to direct and indirect objects, respectively, though they could be used in other ways too.

For instance, some prepositions took accusative objects, and some took dative objects (and some took either depending on the meaning). Nouns and pronouns in the accusative and dative cases could also be used in ways that seem strange to modern speakers. The dative, for example, could be used in places where we would normally use to and a pronoun. In some constructions we still have the choice between a pronoun or to and a pronoun—think of how you can say either I gave her the ball or I gave the ball to her—but in Old English you could do this to a much greater degree.

In the phrase woe is me, woe is the subject and me is a dative object, something that isn’t allowed in English today. It really means woe is to me. Today the phrase woe is me is pretty fixed, but some past variations on the phrase make the meaning a little clearer. Sometimes it was used with a verb, and sometimes woe was simply followed by a noun or prepositional phrase. In the King James Bible, we find “If I be wicked, woe unto me” (Job 10:15). One example from Old English reads, “Wa biþ þonne þæm mannum” (woe be then [to] those men).

So “woe is I” is not simply a fancy or archaic way of saying “I am woe” and is thus not parallel to constructions like “it is I”, where the nominative form is usually prescribed and the objective form is proscribed. In “woe is me”, “me” is not a subject complement (also known as a predicative complement) but a type of dative construction.

Thus the singular is is always correct, because it agrees with the singular mass noun woe. And though we don’t have distinct dative pronouns anymore, you can still use any pronoun in the object case, so woe is us would also be correct.

Addendum: Arika Okrent, writing at Mental Floss, has also just posted a piece on this construction. She goes into a little more detail on related constructions in English, German, and Yiddish.

And here are a couple of articles by Jan Freeman from 2007, specifically addressing Patricia O’Conner’s Woe Is I and a column by William Safire on the phrase:

Woe Is Us, Part 1
Woe Is Us, Continued

30 Responses to Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?

  1. Karen says:

    I do hope you’re familiar with Patricia O’Connor’s wonderful book “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.”

  2. Jeremy says:

    Nice:) Thank God for Arrant Pedantry.

  3. Karen: I am not familiar with it, though I’ve heard of it. Please tell me that she explains that her title is a joke and that it really should be woe is me.

    • Karen says:

      Oh gosh yes: “Hundreds of years after the first Ophelia cried ‘Woe is me,’ only a pedant would argue that Shakespeare should have written ‘Woe is I’ or ‘Woe is unto me.’ (Never mind that the rules of English grammar weren’t even formalized in Shakespeare’s day.)”

      I also meant to mention that I first learned about “woe is me” from William Safire back in 1993, in his popular “On Language” column in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/10/17/magazine/on-language-woe-is-not-me.html

      • Hmm. That quote makes it sound like she thinks it’s right only because no one had yet determined that it was wrong, which has it all backwards. Only a mistaken pedant would argue that it should be “woe is I”, because a real pedant knows that it’s a dative construction and not an error in any sense, technical, stylistic, or otherwise.

        The mention of “the rules of English grammar” doesn’t inspire much confidence either. What she really means is the prescriptive rules that people began to cook up after the language had been standardized, which often have nothing to do with the structural rules of English. English has always had rules (though not the kind that most people think of), whether or not anyone had “formalized” them yet. And some of those rules governed the use of the dative in a much wider range of constructions than we are familiar with today.

        The Safire piece is even worse, because he considers the opinion of actual scholars of language and then says, “Nah, I don’t think so.” He really was betraying some incredible ignorance, not to mention a fair amount of arrogance.

  4. Fabrizio says:

    Does it really matter? How many people use the expression, woe is me, or woe is I? It seems archaic and therefore a moot point.

    The rule is that any pronoun that follows the verb to be must take the subjective case. E.g. It is I, I am he, it is they etc.

    • Warsaw Will says:

      ‘The rule is …’ etc. Which is again to have things backwards. Because some eighteenth-century commementators tried to fit English grammar to that of Latin, it is now apparently thought by some that copular ‘be’ must be followed by a subjective pronoun, even though that it is totally out of kilter with actual use. Where on earth do people nowadays say “Hi, Mum. It is I.” or “Who did that?” “It was I, Miss”. This is something which certain native-speaker ‘grammar’ sites preach – but I often wonder if they really practise it at home. If so, their conversations must sound rather odd!

      The fact is that most speakers find it unnatural to use subject pronouns unless they are followed by a verb. Luckily, in EFL teaching, we teach real rules, telling our students that “It is I” etc are only used in formal language.

    • What do you mean, does it really matter? I guess it doesn’t if you don’t think facts matter. And the point isn’t that a lot of people use the expression and need to be taught the rule. Someone was simply curious about it and asked for an explanation, and I happily obliged. I’m not sure why you would have a problem with that.

      And no, the rule is not that any pronoun that follows the verb “to be” must take the subjective case. That’s an oversimplification based on the ignorance of facts. The real rule—if you want the traditional rule that ignores how people actually use the language (and, as Warsaw Will said, English speakers don’t really follow this rule)—then the rule is that predicative nominatives take the subjective case. The “me” in “woe is me” is not a predicative nominative, but you can only know that if you look at the facts.

    • Karen says:

      That is the rule only if the “is” is a copula, that is, you’re asserting that the two things are the same. “Woe is me” doesn’t me “I am woe,” it mean “I will get woe” or “woe will come to me.”

  5. Fabrizio says:

    Warsaw Will: “Because some eighteenth-century commementators?[sic] tried to fit English grammar to that of Latin, it is now…” How do you know who these eighteenth-century people are? Are you comparing your acumen to theirs?

    As you said, “it is I” is only used in formal language and some people prefer formality in language. Furthermore, following the “rule” does not make someone seem uneducated, perhaps pedantic or pretentious, but not foolish. You might not want to follow the rules, that’s your prerogative, but some people choose to
    adhere to them.

    • I’ll compare my acumen to eighteenth-century grammarians any day. They invented a lot of really stupid rules simply because they didn’t understand what they were doing.

      And as for following the rules, yes, it’s your prerogative, but it’s important to make sure you understand the rule first. If you think that it technically should be “woe is I”, then you don’t understand the rule.

  6. Chips Mackinolty says:

    … and of course, there was the fabulous re-phrasing of this phrase was in James Thurber’s book, The Wonderful O !

  7. Fabrizio says:

    Jonathan:
    My comment was not directed at you, but since you responded…
    The history of English grammar started prior to the eighteenth century, where many of those rules were already codified.
    I never countenanced the “woe is I” usage. Why bring it up?

    Regarding your comment, which was not directed at you: “I’ll compare my acumen to eighteenth-century grammarians any day.”

    “Robert Lowth FRS DD (27 November 1710 – 3 November 1787) was a Bishop of the Church of England, a professor of poetry at Oxford University and the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar.
    Lowth was born in Hampshire, England, the son of Dr William Lowth. He was educated at Winchester College and became a scholar of New College, Oxford in 1729. Lowth obtained his BA in 1733 and his Master of Arts degree in 1737. In 1735, while still at Oxford, Lowth took orders in the Anglican Church and was appointed vicar of Ovington, Hampshire, a position he retained until 1741, when he was appointed professor of poetry at Oxford.
    Bishop Lowth wrote a translation of the Bible. E.J. Waggoner said in 1899 that his translation included “without doubt, as a whole, the best English translation of the prophecy of Isaiah.”

    “Robert Lowth has been regarded as the first imagery critic of Shakespeare’s plays and highlighted the importance of the imagery in the interpretation of motives and actions of characters and dramatic movement of the plot and narrative structure.”
    “Lowth seems to have been the first modern Bible scholar to have noticed or drawn attention to the poetic structure of the Psalms and much of the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. In Lecture 19 he sets out the classic statement of parallelism which still today is the most fundamental category for understanding Hebrew poetry. He identifies three forms of parallelism, the synonymous, antithetic and synthetic (i.e. balance only in the manner of expression without either synonymy or antithesis). This idea has been influential in Old Testament Studies to the present day.”

    John Wallis, William Lily,( Besides the Brevissima Institutio, Lily wrote a variety of Latin pieces and translations from Greek, both in prose and verse. Some of the latter are printed along with the Latin verses of Sir Thomas More in Progymnasmata Thomae Mori et Gulielmi Lylii Sodalium)

    “Joseph Priestley(Joseph Priestley: educator and Historian, political philosopher, was an 18th-century English theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator, and Liberal political theorist who published over 150 works. He is usually credited with the discovery of oxygen, having isolated it in its gaseous state, although Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Antoine Lavoisier also have a claim to the discovery.”

    Perhaps your acumen is equal, but is your wisdom and knowledge as equal?

    • I never countenanced the “woe is I” usage. Why bring it up?

      Because that’s what the post is about. Someone asked why it’s “woe is me”, and I answered. And you didn’t specifically say that “woe is I” is correct, but you did say that the rule is that you have to use a subjective form after a form of to be. I was trying to explain why that rule is wrong, or at the very least incomplete, but you don’t seem interested in a discussion on that point. I’m not going to bother responding to the rest of your comment because it’s an enormous red herring.

    • Warsaw Will says:

      First of all, it is perfectly possible to disagree with someone without imputing their intelligence or erudition. Of course I respect the learning of people like Lowth, but they were working at a time when Latin was given, in my view, rather too much prominence in the codifying of English Grammar. And some of the prescriptions of those days, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, have few followers nowadays.

      Secondly, I deliberately said “some eighteenth-century commentators” (sorry about the typo), among whom I’d certainly include Lowth. But the exception I was thinking of was precisely Joseph Priestley, so it’s interesting you should mention him. In ‘The Rudiments of Grammar’ (2nd edition 1772) Priestley specifically warns against basing English grammar too closely on Latin (one of the points I was making), writing:

      “It is possible I may be thought to have leaned too much from the Latin idiom, with respect to several particulars in the structure of our language ; but I think it is evident, that all other grammarians have leaned too much to the analogies of that language, contrary to our modes of speaking ”

      Priestley was in many ways rather ahead of his time, following this up with:

      “It must be allowed, that the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language”

      And precisely one of the areas where Priestley parted company with Lowth was on the matter of personal pronouns following ‘be’, where he seemed to think that prescriptive grammar and ‘the custom of speaking’ were at odds:

      “All our grammarians say, that the nominative cases of pronouns ought to follow the verb substantive as well as precede it; yet many familiar forms of speech, and the example of some of our best writers, would lead us to make a contrary rule, or at least, would leave us liberty to adopt which we liked best ”

      And he quotes Swift “It cannot be me”, and Richardson “There is but one man that she can have, and that is me”.

      He also disagreed with Lowth about ‘whom’, but that’s a different story. Priestley’s book was apparently very popular at the time, but unfortunately, from my point of view, later grammarians, such as the very influential Lindley Murray, seemed to have tended more to Lowth’s prescriptive methods than Priestley’s (in my opinion) more common sense approach.

      Incidentally Wallis and Lily were both writing in the seventeenth century, before the rise of prescriptivism. I’m not aware of Lily’s work on grammar, but Wallace, although he wrote his Grammatica linguae Anglicanae in Latin, was apparently one of the first grammarians ‘not to force the vernacular into a traditional Latin mould’ (the Wallace Project), so is excluded from my “certain eighteenth century commentators” on at least two counts.

      • Warsaw Will says:

        Opps, something went wrong there – “without imputing their intelligence or erudition” should be “without suggesting they lack intelligence or erudition”.

        • Fabrizio says:

          Warsaw Will“…Latin was given, in my view, rather too much prominence in the codifying of English Grammar.”
          That’s debatable, and also slightly ambiguous, because English had to follow a standard to codify its rules and Latin was the de facto prototype throughout Europe at the time.

          I don’t know of one prescriptivist today who enforces the “obsolete” rule of not ending a sentence with a preposition.

          As a matter of fact Lowth does talk about ending sentences with prepositions, but you will be surprised for he’s not as adamant against it as you might think:

          “This is an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to [note, he does not write: “to which our language is strongly inclined”]; it prevails in common conversation and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the preposition before the relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.”
          . From David Mulroy’s “War against Grammar”

          Also: “ There is no warrant for the belief that Lowth wanted to stretch English to fit the rules of Latin grammar. The specific question of applying Latin rules to English arises in connection with absolute phrases’—e.g., “ ‘The door being shut’, Jesus stood in their midst. Lowth insists that pronouns in such phrases must be in the nominative case, not the objective, and takes the classicist Bentley to task for changing an absolute phrase in Milton, “he defending” to “him defending” by analogy with Latin. “This comes” Lowth says, “of forcing the English under the rules of a foreign language, WITH WHICH IT HAS LITTLE CONCERN [emphasis added].”

          Regardless, I think all this is rather a moot point, because if you are a descriptivist, who I assume you are, then you don’t have a preconceived idea on how language ought to be used. You’re apparently just opposed to the rules or to the belief that a standard language is the correct form of usage.

          • Warsaw Will says:

            Well, this is fun, although this is posibly not the right forum (sorry, Jonathon):
            “English had to follow a standard to codify its rules and Latin was the de facto prototype throughout Europe at the time” – and what was so wrong with English usage? That’s where the rules come from in the first place. Why chose a prototype from another language, especially one which wss so different from English (virtually non-inflected) as Latin (just about as well as inflected as you can get)?

            As for Lowths’s remarks about ending sentences with a preposition, I wouldn’t be surprised, as he sits on my computer alongside Priestley, Ben Jonson and various
            other old grmmar books (it’s a bit of a hobby of mine). But you don’t have to look far to find websites that still put forward avoiding it as an ideal, if not a ‘serious error’. This is from ‘Grammar Monster’:

            “That is a situation of which I have not thought.”
            (This version is grammatically more pure than:
            “That is a situation I have not thought of.”)

            In what way is it ‘ grammatically purer’ , I wonder. So yes, there are still people who peddle this sort of nonsense. And that was about the second entry in Google.

            “You’re apparently just opposed to the rules or to the belief that a standard language is the correct form of usage.”

            Well, yes, of course I’m a descriptivist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe English has rules, and I teach these rules to foreign learners every day. But rules based on actual educated everyday usage, not arbitrary rules imposed by individuals or prescriptive style guides. I don’t teach, for example, that the correct form is “With whom did you eat the pizza” (from an infographic on another ‘grammar’ website) because nobody speaks like that. But I do teach when using ‘whom’ is more appropriate. Meanwhile, even people who would never say things like ‘It wasn’t I who did it’ are led to believe that the natural, idiomatic ‘It wan’t me who did it’ is somehow incorrect. Here are a couple of examples, the first one, admittedly, tongue in cheek:

            ”Oh, it wasn’t me who cooked it,’ George said, letting the grammar go hang.’ (Claire Rayner)

            ‘It seems we face the dilemma of appearing either illiterate – “It wasn’t me who was to blame” or pompous – “It wasn’t I who was to blame.’ But why should the natural, idiomatic version be considered ‘illiterate’?

            That was from a British website which also has this: ‘ “Mark can run faster than me.” (Incorrect), “Mark can run faster than I. (Corrected)” ‘ No discussion of the possibility that ‘than’ might be a preposition here (as listed in Oxford Dictionaries Online). Little mention of register, and for some reason, no mention of the neutral alternative ‘Mark can run faster than I can’. ‘Knowing’ a rule, it would seem, is not necessarily the same as understanding the grammar. And I’ve just noticed that I used ‘which’ in a definining (restrictive) clause – which for some is also an error – but that’s a twentieth century shibboleth, not an eighteenth century one!

            When you say a standard language, I presume you mean formal language, in which case, no I don’t believe it is ‘more correct’ than informal language. As one of the linguistics professors at LanguageLog put it, “Informal is normal”. It’s a matter of horses for courses. Yes, it’s often better to say ‘James and I are going to the pub’, but there are times when ‘Me and Jim are going to the pub’ (borderline standard) is just fine. It’s a matter of what is more appropriate. But, better?

            And of course, I teach Standard English, and accept that that is what is appropriate in general discourse, including discussions like these. But is Standard English the only correct form? No, dialects have rules too. And what counts as standard in my form(s) (British and Scottish) of Standard English isn’t necessarily the same as what counts as standard in your form(s). For example, for me, ‘Our team are playing well today’ is absolutely standard, but anethema for many Americans.

          • I know this was to Warsaw Will, but I can’t resist responding.

            If you are a descriptivist, who I assume you are, then you don’t have a preconceived idea on how language ought to be used. You’re apparently just opposed to the rules or to the belief that a standard language is the correct form of usage.

            It’s not that descriptivists don’t have preconceived ideas on how language ought to be used, it’s that we’re willing to question our preconceptions and look at what the facts tell us. And we’re not opposed to the rules (not necessarily, anyway), though some will argue about whether a standard language is correct.

            That’s sort of a hairsplitting argument, in my opinion. Linguists often want to stress that the standard form of a language is arbitrary and is innately no more correct or incorrect than any other form of a language; correctness is basically a social judgement. That is, the standard form is the one that people regard as correct, even though it’s not better or more correct in any objective sense.

            But the fact that you link the rules and the idea that a standard form is correct is indicative of a problem that linguists try to address when they debunk rules. People often think that the rules are the essence of Standard English and that if you denigrate the rules, you’re denigrating Standard English.

            And that’s where we come back to linguists and their facts. By any reasonable definition, Standard English is the variety used by educated speakers that avoids certain regional or nonstandard forms. (You can get a little more elaborate than that, but that’s the gist of it.) So if you find reams of evidence that speakers of Standard English don’t follow a rule and virtually never have, this isn’t a sign that Standard English is under attack or that people are illiterate or anything like that—it’s just a sign that the rule isn’t actually a part of Standard English.

            Determining what Standard English is is an empirical endeavor. It isn’t and never has been determined by a bunch of people—no matter how great their wisdom and acumen—sitting around and deciding what the rules should be.

  8. Warsaw Will says:

    That should have been ‘possibly’ of course.

  9. Fabrizio says:

    Warsaw Will:
    “…and what was so wrong with English usage? That’s where the rules come from in the first place. Why chose [sic] a prototype from another language, especially one which wss[sic] so different from English…”

    I don’t understand what English rules you’re referring to. William Bullokar transcribed the first English grammar, “Pamphlet for Grammar”, published in 1586, his intention was to demonstrate that English was as rule-bound as Latin. By the way, during that period many books on English grammar were written in Latin. It seems reasonable that Latin, being the lingua franca for the elites, would be a criterion to emulate. Also, many German words are derived from Latin and it is written using the Latin alphabet. When descriptivists defend the double negative, as in “they didn’t do nothing” they use as examples the French or Spanish usage of multiple negatives, which is standard in those languages, to justify such unorthodox usage in English. But as you said, “Why use a prototype from another language…” You can’t have it both ways.

    “…I’m a descriptivist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe English has rules, and I teach these rules…but rules based on actual educated everyday usage…”
    This seems to be a paradoxical statement, because descriptivism works on the precedent of a nonjudgmental approach to language, it focuses on how language is used, by “describing” how it is used. Therefore, rules would certainly not apply to a descriptive methodology.

    “With whom did you eat the pizza…because nobody speaks like that. But I do teach when using ‘whom’ is more appropriate.”
    Yes, I agree very few people would say that; nevertheless, “ With whom did you eat pizza” is appropriate. Furthermore, if there is a more appropriate (correct) style, as you’ve
    implied, then there is a better register in language.

    The linguist Henry Sweet predicted in the nineteenth century that the English, the Australians, and the Americans would be speaking equally unintelligible languages by 1980. But thanks to Lowth and other prescriptivists this has not occurred. Without standard English language might have changed making literature of the 16th century, such as Shakespeare’s works, incomprehensible today.

    “When you say a standard language, I presume you mean formal language, in which case, no I don’t believe it is ‘more correct’ than informal language.”

    Again, a paradoxical statement that leads us to semantics, because dialects with poor grammar and deficient vocabularies might not prevent speakers from expressing themselves as logically as standard dialects, but standard languages can convey a meaning more precisely and with greater depth. Furthermore, if one wants to succeed scholastically and professionally then one has to comprehend and speak a standard language; therefore, there is a better way to speak if one desires a “better” life.

  10. JJM says:

    As they say in Yiddish: “Oy vey is mir!”

  11. Edward says:

    Jonathan, I don’t understand why you would categorize Fabrizio’s comments as trolling. He expressed an opinion that seemed contrary to yours; nevertheless, a few of his comments have merit. I don’t get the impression that what he said construes ignorance in linguistics, nor does it justify your assertions. After all, there are a few authorities who share his opinion and some of the information he’s submitted is factual and not based on predisposition. Furthermore, the information he offered was directed at Warsaw Will’s comments, which seemingly you feel is antagonistic to your point of view; nonetheless, it’s just another side of the argument.
    Arrant Pedantry is a public forum where, I assume, opposing viewpoints should be welcome, although they might not be agreeable to your ideology.
    Despite your opposition I think a few of Fabrizio’s comments have credence.
    For example you said: “I’ll compare my acumen to eighteenth-century grammarians any day. They invented a lot of really stupid rules simply because they didn’t understand what they were doing.”
    That’s an audacious and rather inaccurate statement. The accomplishments of a few of those eighteenth-century grammarians, whom you’ve cavalierly disparaged, exemplify a well-established erudition rather than inventors of “stupid rules.” The fact that they relied on Latin for their major source is not something to be repudiated, because at that time English was not an academic subject. It was their knowledge and ability with the grammar of Latin which qualified them as grammarians.
    “What do you mean, does it really matter? I guess it doesn’t if you don’t think facts matter….The “me” in “woe is me” is not a predicative nominative, but you can only know that if you look at the facts.”
    Are you referring to grammar? If you are how is it based on facts? This would seem antithetical to the descriptive tenet: “ A descriptive approach….does not tell you “how” to speak or use the language; it simply “describes” how the speakers of the language use their language.” Whose or what facts are you referring to? Do you maintain that descriptivism is based on facts, and prescriptivism is based on opinions? Your edification on the dative case “woe is me” is based on “rules”, but those rules are long-ago usages, which you’ve incorporated today to invalidate the “woe is I” usage.
    “In the phrase woe is me, woe is the subject and me is a dative object, something that isn’t allowed in English today.”
    If it isn’t allowed then what is the relevance?
    “Thus the singular is is always correct, because it agrees with the singular mass noun woe.”
    But “woe” would not be considered a mass noun it would be an “abstract noun” and “woe is me” or “woe is I” would be an “interjection phrase”.
    Woe (n.)
    “late 12c., from the interjection, Old English wa!, a common exclamation of lament in many languages (compare Latin væ, Greek oa, German weh, Lettish wai, Old Irish fe, Welsh gwae, Armenian vay).”
    .

    • I don’t understand why you would categorize Fabrizio’s comments as trolling.

      His very first comment was antagonistic. Someone asked me why it was “woe is me”, and I explained. He asked if it really matters, said it was a moot point, and then derailed the discussion with irrelevant arguments about the supposed rule requiring the subjective case and the merits of eighteenth-century grammarians.

      I don’t get the impression that what he said construes ignorance in linguistics . . .

      It does, and, frankly, so does yours, especially this part:

      Are you referring to grammar? If you are how is it based on facts? This would seem antithetical to the descriptive tenet: “ A descriptive approach….does not tell you “how” to speak or use the language; it simply “describes” how the speakers of the language use their language.” Whose or what facts are you referring to? Do you maintain that descriptivism is based on facts, and prescriptivism is based on opinions? Your edification on the dative case “woe is me” is based on “rules”, but those rules are long-ago usages, which you’ve incorporated today to invalidate the “woe is I” usage.

      Did you read my post at all? I discussed the historical and grammatical facts behind the dative construction. It is a fact, not an opinion, that the correct form of the phrase is “woe is me” and that those who argue for “woe is I” are misanalyzing the phrase. The argument that “woe is I” is correct is based on the assumption that “me/I” is a nominative complement—that is, that it modifies the subject “woe”—and that such complements should be in the nominative case. The first assumption is an error of fact because the analysis is wrong, and the second assumption is based on opinion, not fact.

      The last part of the above quote is incoherent. “Rules” does not mean “prescriptive rules” and is thus not a contradiction. This construction may have originated long ago, and it’s fossilized now, but that doesn’t mean that “woe is me” is suddenly incorrect.

      If it isn’t allowed then what is the relevance?

      The relevance is that someone asked about it. And the relevance of the now-archaic rules is that they were a regular part of the language before this phrase was fossilized. Just because we can’t make new phrases with dative constructions like this doesn’t mean that this one is automatically wrong and has to be changed. It does mean, though, that people will try to reanalyze it, as you and fabrizio have done by insisting that it should be a nominative complement. If enough people do this and everyone starts saying “woe is I”, then the grammatical analysis might change. But that hasn’t happened.

      But “woe” would not be considered a mass noun it would be an “abstract noun” and “woe is me” or “woe is I” would be an “interjection phrase”.

      This is pretty much nonsense. “Mass noun” is an accepted idea in linguistics, and it has nothing to do with abstractness. I don’t see what “woe is me” has to do with interjections (there is no such thing as an interjection phrase); it’s a full clause with a subject, verb, and complement.

      Arrant Pedantry is a public forum where, I assume, opposing viewpoints should be welcome, although they might not be agreeable to your ideology.

      This is not a public forum in the sense that anyone can post whatever they want here. This is my forum, and if I think that someone is detracting from rather than contributing to the discussion, I’m under no obligation to allow them to continue posting. I do welcome opposing viewpoints, but I expect participants to stay on topic and argue in good faith.

  12. Warsaw Will says:

    ‘I don’t understand what English rules you’re referring to.’ I think this really sums it up – some people seem to think that grammar rules only existed once they had been codified by grammarians, whereas of course speakers had been using them for centuries, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to communicate. And of course they change over time.

    We unconsciously use the rules of grammar every time we open our mouths: the sort of rules foreign learners have to use, but native speakers never even think about. For example, that ‘An expensive hand-made Swiss watch’ is grammatical, but ‘A hand-made Swiss watch expensive’ isn’t. Or that ‘And my grandmother still lives there’ works but ‘And there lives still my grandmother’doesn’t. This is all grammar; whether to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’, or ‘which’ or ‘that’ is more about style and register.

    As for ‘standard language,’ I recommend the recent article on Standard English at The Stroppy Editor, and especially the article he links to by Professor Trudgill – ‘Standard English: What it isn’t.’

  13. Edward says:

    Jonathan Owen:
    “This is not a public forum in the sense that anyone can post whatever they want here.”
    Nevertheless, it’s a public forum, and I don’t think that someone with a contrary opinion warrants a the labeling of “troll”. Furthermore, Fabrizio’s comments were not antagonistic, perhaps a little assertive, but he did not deviate from the topic.
    “…derailed the discussion with irrelevant arguments about the supposed rule requiring the subjective case and the merits of eighteenth-century grammarians.”
    This is not an accurate assessment for Fabrizio was not responsible for initiating the comments on eighteen –century grammarians, as you’re well aware. The rules regarding the nominative case was not irrelevant because your post precisely concerned nominative/dative case rules.
    “I don’t get the impression that what he said construes ignorance in linguistics . . .”
    “It does, and, frankly, so does yours, especially this part:”

    I said: “Are you referring to grammar? If you are how is it based on facts? This would seem antithetical to the descriptive tenet: “ A descriptive approach….does not tell you “how” to speak or use the language; it simply “describes” how the speakers of the language use their language.” 
    How does that description of linguistics (descriptivism) convey ignorance in linguistics? After all, it’s an accurate representation of a descriptive approach.
    “I discussed the historical and grammatical facts behind the dative construction. It is a fact, not an opinion, that the correct form of the phrase is “woe is me” and that those who argue for “woe is I” are misanalyzing the phrase.”  “Thus the singular is is always correct, because it agrees with the singular mass noun woe. And though we don’t have distinct dative pronouns anymore, you can still use any pronoun in the object case, so woe is us would also be correct.”
    Are you implying that there’s a “correct” form of English? If you were then this would certainly counter the tenet of descriptivism, which is that all languages follow their own set of rules. Therefore, if these rules differ from Standard English it by no means is an indication that it is an inferior rule. Furthermore, don’t you follow the academy of linguistics, which is to observe and describe language as it is used, rather than prescribing and enforcing rules of proper usage? That is where I am perplexed, because you’re referring to a dative case, which refers to a grammatical rule that you, being a descriptivist, should not necessarily enforce. I find this to be paradoxical. I agree with your position on the dative construction “woe is me” but I’m confused as to why you would explain to your readers why it is the proper usage, since this would oppose the descriptive approach to language.
    “This is pretty much nonsense. “Mass noun” is an accepted idea in linguistics, and it has nothing to do with abstractness. I don’t see what “woe is me” has to do with interjections (there is no such thing as an interjection phrase); it’s a full clause with a subject, verb, and complement.”
    Why is it nonsense? “woe” is an abstract noun. Abstract nouns refer to events, concepts, feelings, qualities, etc., that have no physical existence. “ A mass noun has no plural form, often referring to a substance.
    EG: butter; smoke; money – These nouns have no plurals.” The fact that it’s an accepted idea in linguistics is irrelevant to how woe is defined as a noun. Perhaps you are revealing ignorance in grammar, because there is such a thing as an “interjection phrase” and “woe is me” could certainly be considered an interjection phrase.

    The Free Dictionary:

    Woe is me!
    I am unfortunate.; I am unhappy. (Usually humorous.) Woe is me! I have to work when the rest of the office staff is off. Woe is me. I have the flu and my friends have gone to a party.

  14. Warsaw Will says:

    Going back to the matter in hand. A few examples from Chaucer support the dative idea:

    O good Custance, allas! so wo is me
    But wo is him that payen moot for al;
    So wo was him, his wyf looked so foule.
    Your heritage, o! wo were us alyve!
    Noght wolde I telle how me is wo bigon;

    There are a quite a few other impersonal dative constructions like this in the Canterbury Tales.

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