Episode 263: February 17, 2011
by Mignon Fogarty
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Last week Monique sent in the following question:
“A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook and the caption read ‘I and Anas.’ I corrected her but instead of picking up the mistake like a native English speaker would have, she is adamant about it being correct and went as far as asking me why it is incorrect . . . Could you tell me why her saying ‘I and Anas’ is incorrect?”
I regularly get questions like this about photo captions, and I covered it in my books, but I’ve never done a podcast about it, so let’s do it today.
How to Write Grammatically Correct Photo Captions
The biggest problem with photo captions is that they often aren’t complete sentences, and choosing between the pronoun “I” and the pronoun “me” depends on where that pronoun falls in a complete sentence--whether it’s the subject or object. If it’s in the subject position, you use “I” (the subject pronoun), but if it’s in the object position, you use “me” (the object pronoun).
Subject Versus Object
A subject is the one taking action in a sentence and the object is the one receiving the action or serving as the target of the action. In the sentence “Squiggly released the arrow,” Squiggly is the subject and the arrow is the object. Further, pronouns that follow prepositions such as “of” and “between” are always in the object case.
Can You Use Fragments as Photo Captions?
It’s OK to use a sentence fragment to caption your photo, but to choose between “Aardvark and me” or “Aardvark and I,” you have to figure out what the whole implied sentence would be so you know whether to use a subject or object pronoun.
That’s where photo captions get tricky because we’re just guessing what the sentence would be. Do you mean “Check out Aardvark and me at Mardi Gras,” “This is a picture of Aardvark and me at Mardi Gras,” or “Aardvark and I went to Mardi Gras last week”?
If the implied sentence is “Check out Aardvark and me at Mardi Gras,” “me” is the right choice because it’s in the object position. You’re the target of the checking out verb action.
If the implied sentence is “This is a picture of Aardvark and me,” “me” is the right choice because it is the object pronoun and we need an object pronoun because it follows the preposition “of.”
If the implied sentence is “Aardvark and I went to Mardi Gras,” “I” is the right choice because it is the subject pronoun and we need a subject pronoun because you’re taking an action--going to Mardi Gras--making you the subject of the sentence.
“It Is I” Versus “It Is Me”
To make things even trickier, we have a problem with another possible implied sentence: one that simply reads “This is Aardvark and I.” The problem is that this is an area of language that is in flux. Traditional grammar rules are clear: pronouns that follow linking verbs (such as “is”) should be subject pronouns. So, for example, when I answer the phone, and someone says “Is Mignon there?” I’m supposed to answer “That’s I,” not “That’s me.”
But many modern, respectable style guides (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) say “That’s me” is allowed, or even preferred. Today, both “This is Aardvark and I” and “This is Aardvark and me” would be considered correct depending on which version of the linking verb rule you choose to follow--the traditional rule or the more lax modern rule.
How to Write Photo Captions
So what should Monique tell her friend about photo captions? Here’s what I do. I usually avoid using fragments and write a whole sentence so there’s no question about what is implied, and I avoid the that’s-me-that’s-I problem by avoiding sentences that use linking verbs. My photos captions usually read something like “Aardvark and I had a great time at Mardi Gras” or “Can you believe how sunburned Aardvark and I got at Mardi Gras?”
On the rare occasion when I do use a fragment, I use “me”--“Aardvark and me”--because my underlying, implied sentence is “This is a picture of Aardvark and me.” But as I hope you gathered from this article, you can also make an argument for writing “Aardvark and I” because there’s no absolute right answer about which pronoun to use when you’re dealing with a sentence fragment.
There’s one final thing that’s wrong with Monique’s friend’s caption that she didn’t ask about, but that I want to address--pronoun order. When you’re putting yourself in a list with other people, you should always put yourself last. So Monique’s friend should write “Anas and me,” not “me and Anas.”
O'Connor, P. Woe Is I. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1996, p. 10.
Straus, J. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. 9th Ed. Mill Valley: Jane Straus, 2006, p. 17.
Brians, P. Common Errors in English Usage. Wilsonville: William, James & Co, 2003. p.131.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1994, p. 628.
Garner, B. Garner’s Modern American Usage. 3rd Ed. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 485.