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THOSE PESKY PRONOUNS

by Paula LaRocque on September 5th, 2010

I received this e-mail this morning:

I may have talked with you about this before, but I am confused about the current usage of the pronouns “I” and “me.”
Do I remember incorrectly that I was taught that if you said/wrote about you and another person, the pronoun should be able to “stand alone,” i.e., without the other person? Such as: “The sunset was so beautiful that it stunned Susie and me.” (“The sunset was so beautiful it stunned me.”) Or: “Susie and I were stunned by the beautiful sunset.” (“I was stunned by the beautiful sunset.”)
Now I commonly read things like the example below. Would they speak this way?
“For Heather and I, two sisters desperate not to miss a second of quality time together, Santa Fe assuages us.”
Shouldn’t the written word and the spoken word be interchangeable?

JD

I responded to JD’s note, and she wrote back: “You should do a blog post on this. You can use my e-mail. I’m serious.”

OK. I’m serious, too.

Few gaffes generate as much heat as confusing the subjective pronouns I, he, she, we, or they with the objective pronouns me, him, her, us, or them. Here are pronoun mistakes from university professors to television anchors to newspaper reporters:

• It bothers people inside the beltway like you and I more than it does regular folks.
• The only faculty members in this department who care about grammar are two other instructors and myself.
• I notice that you and her have the same last name.
• The new office makes a wonderful workplace for Sherry and I.
• This is between you and I.
• They introduced the new director to him and I.
• She’s at least 15 years older than him.
• My wife has a better memory than me.

Each of those examples is ungrammatical. It seems we all remember that it’s wrong to say, “Johnny and me are going” – just as wrong as “me is going.” The reason it’s wrong is that we need a subject and me is an object. We say, “I am going,” but “Call me.” We’re so wary of “Johnny and me,” however, that we may avoid it even when it’s right. For example, we might say (incorrectly): Call Johnny and I. Give it to Johnny and I. Tell Johnny and I. If we take Johnny out of those sentences, though, we see how wrong they are – as wrong as: call I, give it to I, tell I.

The pronoun errors in the examples above are just variations on the same theme. The pronoun we choose depends upon whether it should be subjective or objective. If it’s the actor (a subject), it should be I, he, she, they, we, who. If it’s acted upon (an object), it should be me, him, her, them, us, whom.

“Self” pronouns are different from other pronouns because they are neither subjects nor objects, but reflexives (I hurt myself) or intensifiers (they are going, but I myself am staying home). Again, if we would not say, “Myself is going,” we likewise must not say, “John and myself are going.” If we would not say, “Let myself know,” we likewise must not say, “Let John or myself know.”

Removing other people from the sentence and letting the pronoun stand alone quickly reveals which role the pronoun is playing – subject or object. Substituting other pronouns also can help in certain sentences. For example, if we know that it’s right to say, “This is between us,” then we also know it’s right to say, “This is between you and me” – because us is objective, and any pronoun we choose for this particular sentence would also have to be objective. “This is between you and I” is as incorrect as “this is between we.”

Pronouns in “than “ sentences are easy. If you can place a verb after the pronoun, choose the subjective pronoun: He’s older than I [am]; I’ve worked here longer than she [has]. We would not say older than me [am], worked here longer than her [has].

That’s not all there is to say about pronouns, but it’s a good start. In short, JD is right in her assumptions about pronouns, and her “stand alone” trick is great. She’s also right in her assumption that grammar is grammar – its rules apply equally to speech and writing. But does it matter? Yes. It does.

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