The Importance of Context

A student this past week asked me whether the phrase Mom, Dad, and Me was correct. She was considering it for the title of a short memoir, and the me concerned her: should it be I? Her question points up how important it is to understand the context of what we’re reading and writing. Context is the background against which our words stand, the world which they not only create, but the world which makes their specific meaning and intention precise. Context is of primary concern to a close reader and critical thinker.

To find an answer to my student’s question, let’s begin with the difference between I and me. Both words are pronouns, both forms of what is called the first person singular personal pronoun. A pronoun is a word that stands pro, on behalf of, a noun, so there will always have to be some noun, called the antecedent, to which a pronoun refers. Given that the writer was composing a memoir, we can justifiably assume that the antecedent of the me in the title referred to the writer herself. No question there, but how grammatically does the me work and what would that imply?

The forms I and me represent two different ways the same person can be involved in a situation, and the fact that the two words are spelled differently makes it easy to signal to the reader how we understand the antecedent of me acting in the world we’re writing about. Every personal pronoun has three different forms (not all necessarily spelled differently) which it can assume as the grammatical (and logical) need arises. These three forms are called cases, and each case has a specific grammatical function associated with it: the nominative case shows the subject of a clause, the possessive case shows the possessor of something, and the objective case shows the object of a verb or a preposition.

Now the form I signals the nominative case of the first person personal pronoun, and the form me signals the objective case. That means, then, that since the writer originally chose me for her title, there must have been in the context, in the background about which she was thinking as she drafted the title, some action or relation for which the pronoun me was the object. That is to say, as she composed the title, did she have in the back of her mind, perhaps, some thought like These memories will show you mom, dad, and me together, or Here are some memories about mom, dad, and me? The first uses me as the object of the verb show, the second uses it as the object of the preposition about.

And if she had written the form I instead? As the nominative case of the same pronoun, that would have suggested the writer was thinking about something entirely different, that the three persons in the title were doing something together, because the nominative case represents the subject of a verb: perhaps something like Mom, dad, and I once did this together, or Mom, dad, and I lived in this small town when I was a child. Either way, nominative or objective, the writer was thinking about something as she put her title together, and reading the grammar closely gives us at least a direction to think in to account for the forms she used and thereby perceive more exactly all that her words might be suggesting.

What all this points to is the supreme importance of understanding the implications of what we’re reading and writing. As an art, language is a system of symbols. That means that there is a context and a reason for the way we’ve put our words together. The more closely we understand both, the richer will be the art we create and enjoy.


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