Correct speech doesn't always sound right.That's the headline that ran over this week's Barbara Wallraff's Word Court. Some honest speaker of English writes in with questions about how to avoid sounding "ignorant or affected" and gets told (I kid you not) "If everybody else jumped off a cliff …".
The judge volunteers a discussion of the merits of "Who can you trust?" and "woe is me" ("sound good") versus "Whom can you trust?" and "woe is I" ("are correct"). She uses the me form as an example of her efforts not to go "overboard with grammatical correctness". And she directly calls woe is me "ungrammatical".
Sigh. She's clearly assuming that the copula here is the old "=" sign and doing the "it is I" thing peevologists love so much. But this is an old dative form, and like other such forms you often get it with "to" or "unto" in there. I'm not exactly a Bible-reading kind of guy, but check out this comparison (from here):
New American Standard Bible (©1995)Almost exactly a year ago Jan Freeman talked about this very phrase, here. Since Jan is one of the handful of well known language columnists in our country and since Woe is I is the title of a popular book on usage, you'd figure the Judge would have gotten THIS memo, at least. Let's quote Jan here:
For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.
King James Bible
For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!
woe is me has nothing to do with the predicate nominative. Woe is I is not "technically correct," and that is not just "a matter of opinion." "Woe is me" has been good English not merely "for generations" but (linguistically speaking) forever.Who can you trust? Once again, you're overturned on appeal, Judge.