February 11, 2015

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

Grammar, Usage 25 Replies to “Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


25 thoughts on “Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?

    Author’s gravatar

    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.”

    Author’s gravatar

    Nice:) Thank God for Arrant Pedantry.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

      Author’s gravatar

      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

        Author’s gravatar

        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.

    Author’s gravatar

    ‘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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

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

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

      Author’s gravatar

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

        Author’s gravatar

        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.

        Author’s gravatar

        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.

    Author’s gravatar

    That should have been ‘possibly’ of course.

    Author’s gravatar

    Fabrizio, you’ve demonstrated over and over again that you neither understand what linguists do nor have any interest in understanding. Go troll somewhere else.

    Author’s gravatar

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

    Author’s gravatar

    ‘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.’

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.

    Author’s gravatar

    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.”

    Author’s gravatar

    Sorry to bring this old post back up, but I have some doubts, I am not a native English speaker and all the controversy I have seen around this particular phrase has always baffled me.

    After reading your post and related links and even the comments, I gather that both “wo is me” and “wo is I” are correct depending on what you want to say.

    If you wanted to say “I suffer distress” (I chose ‘distress’ as a synonym of woe to simplify my question), from your explanation on the dative form, you would have to say “Woe is me”. But if you wanted to say “I am distress” then the correct sentence would be “Woe is I”.

    Could you clarify if I am understanding this right?
    Thank you!

      Author’s gravatar

      I’m not sure I’d call it a controversy. I’d say that it’s a confusing construction because a lot of people are unfamiliar with the dative, and for some reason this post drew a lot of trolls.

      But the fact is that “woe is me” was the only correct form for quite a long time, and it was unambiguously a dative construction. After English lost a distinct dative case, some people started to reanalyze it as a sort of nominative complement, so then “woe is I” started to appear in writing. But I really don’t think that anyone saying “woe is I” is actually using it to mean “I am distress”. I think they’re just trying to make an unusual old construction fit an unrelated grammar rule.

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