Grammar Gremlins: Pesky Pronouns

I, me, and myself are not interchangeable pronouns. I and myself are not somehow classier or more elegant than plain old me. Each has a specific grammatical function, no matter how often we mangle them in speech or in writing.

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gremlin-2Pronouns come in three cases, nominative, possessive, and objective. Most of us have forgotten those terms since we learned them in high school English, and few of us have problems with possessive pronouns. But the grammatical difference between nominative and objective pronouns seems to give people trouble.

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Nominative pronouns (I, we, he, she, and they) act as the subject of a sentence or clause, requiring a verb of their own. Objective pronouns (me, us, him, her, and them) act as objects of verbs or prepositions. (We don’t have to worry about you or it, which are the same in both the nominative and objective cases.)

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Trouble seems to arise most often when objective pronouns are paired with nouns or proper names, and the quick way to check for this is to drop all but the pronoun:

The waiter brought the menu to Jane and I might sound elegant, but kicking Jane to the curb makes it clear. The waiter brought the menu to I is wrong. The waiter brought the menu to Jane and me is plain and correct. So is The waiter brought the menu to her and me.

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The combination of pronoun and name/noun sometimes produces sentences like Her and her husband went to the store or Me and Joe had lunch at the burger place. Drop those other people and you get Her went to the store or Me had lunch.

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Reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, herself, themselves, etc.) have many uses (I wrote this myself, He went to gremlin-3the store by himself, They often asked themselves that question) but be careful. Rewrite The waiter brought the menu to Jane and myself without Jane and you get The waiter brought the menu to myself. That sounds wrong, and it is, because myself in that sentence has no I to refer back to. (I found the menu for myself and shared it with Jane works because myself refers back to I.)

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Two instances that border on coin flipping these days involve the verb to be (doesn’t everything, sooner or later?) and comparison beginning with than. In both cases, formal written English tends to go one way (following the path of the grammar fanatic) while conversational English goes the other.

It is I (formal) or It’s me (conversational).

That might be she at the door (formal) or That might be her at the door (conversational).

Jane is older than I (formal) or Jane is older than me (conversational).

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Bonus points: Between you and me is correct in both formal and conversational English.

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Of course, as always, dialog (or even deep first person point of view) does not need to be grammatically correct when it’s used to show character background, culture, educational level or personality. But as with any undertaking, it helps to know the rules before breaking them.

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Kay Hudson may be a long-time grammar lover, but she does look these things up before she rants about them. Today’s reference is The Merriam-Webster Concise Handbook for Writers, which describes more than most of us will ever need to know about pronouns on pages 165 through 173. Visit Kay and her Grammar Gremlins at kayhudson.com.

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