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Using English Properly: Misuse of Personal Pronouns

1 Introduction

I was very fortunate to have received an excellent grounding in English grammar and usage in high school. That was a long time ago, but it pains me, nay, irritates me, when people, often very well educated, misuse and abuse their native tongue. I am using ‘native’ in a broad sense here to mean either your mother tongue or your second language, but in either case it is the language that you use in your everyday communications. I am aware that grammar has not been taught in any depth in English Canadian schools for many years, so people who misuse the language have some excuse, but that goes only so far.

The legal profession is said to be a learned profession.[1] That imposes an obligation on all of us in the profession, who are or should be quintessential communicators, to use the language correctly. But you often get a very impression when lawyers and judges use illiterate expressions such as: ‘power of attorney’ for an ‘attorney’, ‘between you and I’, ‘go tell Mary and I’, ‘me and him are leaving’, and many others. When you use such expressions you give the impression that you are an ignoramus. Clearly, you don’t want people to think that of you. So what follows are some pointers about how you can avoid these egregious errors. And they are egregious, not mere footling mistakes.[2] Fortunately, they are not difficult to recognize and correct. And that is what this blog seeks to help you to do.

Please remember that the following examples illustrate the correct use of personal pronouns in formal writing. In everyday speech people do not always follow these rules strictly. When you are writing dialogue you also want to be true to your characters and so you may also not follow these rules. And that’s all right in both cases. But when you’re writing formally as professionals, you should follow the rules.

Before we can look at the errors, we need to have a quick look at some basic grammatical concepts (but for those of you who want to jump directly to the examples below, feel free to do so). The first is the concept of case. It indicates whether a noun or a pronoun is used as a subject or an object in a sentence. Modern English recognizes four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. The terms derive from Latin grammar, so in English they are often referred to as the subjective, objective, and possessive cases, the objective being divided into direct and indirect objects. In this blog I shall focus only on the first three. Modern English as distinct from other languages, such as Latin, is not highly inflective, this is, it does not indicate which case is being used by different endings to nouns. We usually determine the case by placement of the word in a sentence. However, we do retain inflections in our pronouns; they change their form depending upon the case. And that is typically where the problems occur The pronouns that give us grief are the personal pronouns and the relative pronoun, who. In this blog I shall focus only on personal pronouns.

The personal pronouns for the first three cases are:

Nominative

Singular: I, you, he, she, it

Plural: we, you, they

Accusative

Singular: me, you, him, her, it

Plural: us, you, them

Dative

Singular: same as for the Accusative

Plural: same as for the Accusative

2 Examples

2.1 Personal Pronouns with Subject and Direct Object

The problems usually arise when a sentence contains a compound subject or object and one element of the compound is a pronoun. If it contains only a simple subject or object, you won’t normally have any difficulty in complying with the rules. For example, no one will say, ‘Me is going to the store’, or ‘Tell I when you’re done’. The first two of the following examples contain compound subjects and direct objects and illustrate how the problems typically arise.

1- Remember how you used to say when you were little, ‘Me and Sally are going to play’? And your mom would say, ‘No dear, you should say, “Sally and me are going to play; you should never name yourself first”’. Mom was both right and wrong. She was right to correct the error in etiquette, but she was wrong to condone the me. Why? Because me is in the objective or accusative case, but Sally and her friend are the compound subject, as is clear from the structure of the sentence. And so the sentence should read, ‘Sally and I are going to play’.

2 – Suppose that you are addressing John and want him to remind Mary and you when the time for a project is up. So you say, ‘Be sure to call Mary and I when time’s up’. This is the reverse of example 1. The structure of the sentence tells you that Mary and I are the compound direct object. So I is wrong. You should have said, ‘Be sure to call Mary and me when time’s up’.

The same problems arise when both elements in the compound subject or object are pronouns. This is an example: ‘Me and her are going to win’. And here’s another: ‘Our colleagues were surprised when our boss let he and I go’. In the first example you need the subjective case, so it should read, ‘She and I are going to win’. In the second example you need the objective case, so the sentence should read, ‘Our colleagues were all surprised when our boss let him and me go’.

When a sentence contains compound subjects or objects and one member of the compound is a proper noun and the other is a pronoun, there’s an easy way to determine which pronoun is correct: delete the noun and change the verb to the singular. So in the first example, you would never say ‘Me is going to play’ right? So you know that the pronoun (and the verb) have to be ‘I am’ Similarly in the second example, you would never say, ‘Be sure to call I when time’s up’. So you know that the pronoun has to be in the objective case, i.e., me.

You can conduct a similar test when both elements of the compound are pronouns. Just delete one of the pronouns and change the verb. Then, using one of the above examples. ‘Me and her are going to win’, you get, ‘Me is going to win’. You know instinctively that this is wrong and thus both pronouns have be in the subjective case, she and I.

The same rules apply when a person uses the pronouns they and them. These usually stand for a plural noun, but they are often used in a singular sense. Thus, you might say, ‘Them will beat all the others’, or ‘Give that thing to they’. As in the previous examples, in the first instance them is the subject, so you should use they. In the second instance they is the direct object, so it should be them.

3 – Well, that’s easy enough isn’t it? But now I’m going to throw you a curve ball. Mom has accused you and your sister of doing something wrong, but you were actually the culprit. Since you are contrite and morally upstanding, you confess and say, ‘No mom, it was me’. It looks as though me is a direct object of the verb form was. But was is a form of the copula or linking verb to be. Such a verb does not perform an action, but links the subject to the predicate. An alternative and more technical way to express that idea is to say that the pronoun me in the predicate completes the subject it and is thus known as a subject complement. That means that any pronouns that are linked to the verb ‘was’ have be in the subjective case. So the correct sentence is, ‘No mom, it was I’. I know, that sounds stuffy, but it is the format you should use in formal writing.

2.2 Personal Pronouns and the Indirect Object

A sentence can include both a direct and an indirect object, but it cannot have just an indirect object. When you have both, the verb in the sentence will tell you what it is doing to or about the object and it will also tell you to or for whom it is doing it. Thus, for example, in this sentence, ‘I gave him a piece of my mind’, the direct object is the phrase ‘piece of my mind’, for it is what you gave him. The indirect object is ‘him’. You can test that by asking who the recipient of the action is. There are two ways of expressing the dative or indirect object: 1. by placing the noun or pronoun between the verb and the direct object, as in the example just given; or 2. by introducing the indirect object by the preposition ‘to’ or ‘for’. Thus, we could have phrased the example as follows, ‘I gave a piece of my mind to him. That is not how we would not normally express that thought, because it sounds stuffy. But you can see that in this case to dative follows the accusative. An example of the ‘to’ form of the indirect object that sounds more natural is, ‘He gave a dozen long-stemmed red roses to his wife on Valentines Day’. Another way to think of the second form of the indirect object is to regard the noun or pronoun that follows ‘to’ or ‘for’ as the object of either of those prepositions. The examples I have just used indicate clearly that the pronoun must be in the objective case. But now let’s look at an example that illustrates where people often fail to follow that rule.

  1. James asks Hilary, ‘When you’ve read the article, please return it to Tom and I’. The direct object has to be it, because that’s what Hilary is to return. So the indirect object must be the compound object Tom and I. Since it should be in the objective case, I is clearly wrong. It should be me. You can also test this result by taking out the proper noun Tom plus and. The sentence would then read. ‘When you’ve read the article, please return it to I. Since you would never say that, you know that I has to be wrong.

3 Conclusion

All right, that’s enough for now. Next time I shall write about the relative pronouns  who and whom and some other grammatical issues.

[1]    Inc. Council of Law Reporting for England & Wales v. Attorney General, [1972] Ch. 73 (C.A.), at p. 72 per Sachs L.J., and at p. 101 per Buckley L.J.

[2]    For those who want to learn more about English grammar and usage but are not grammar scholars, there are many resources available on the internet, such as grammar-monster.com and grammarbook.com. The latter also publishes a helpful book, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, by Lester Kaufman and Jane Straus. Other resources are available in book form. Some of them are geared to teaching English as a second language, but others are intended for a broader audience. Most are written in a breezy, easily accessible style with plenty of examples. The following as a few helpful texts: A Practical English Grammar, by A.J. Thomson and A.V. Martinet; The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage, by Mark Lester and Larry Beason; and The Joy of Syntax by June Casagrande. However, in my opinion, the Barnes & Noble Outline text entitled English Grammar, by George O. Curme, provides the most detailed and perspicacious treatment of the topic. The book was published in 1947 and is still available on Amazon.

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