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Pronouns: Form Is Everything

Frances Peck
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 4, 2003, page 10)

"Can Mary and me stay up to watch the late show?" How many of us ever asked that innocent question, or a reasonable facsimile, at some point during childhood, only to be chastised by a well-meaning (not to mention correct) parent or teacher? "You mean Mary and I."

The trouble is, some people were corrected so often, or at such tender stages of development, that to this day they harbour a suspicion, a dread—even, dare we say, a phobia—about saying "so-and-so and me." It’s as if some broom or ruler were forever looming over their heads, ready to smite them when they utter the dreaded me.

You may think I overdramatize. But consider this. I once taught a grammar workshop to a group of federal government managers, one of whom said, after we had spent maybe fifteen minutes on the difference between subject and object forms of pronouns, "I’ve always known that it’s sometimes correct to say ’Johnny and me.’ But even when I know it’s right, I can’t bring myself to do it. It just feels wrong. So I always rewrite the sentence so I can use ’Johnny and I’ instead."

For people like her (not she), who are uncertain, or plain uncomfortable, about using pronouns, here’s a rundown of three constructions that may baffle us (not we) writers from time to time.

Compounds

"Mary and I" and "Johnny and me" are compound structures. Compounds that include pronouns are often bewildering, even when the pronouns are not I or me.

There’s a simple way to figure out the correct pronoun in a compound. Try using the pronoun in the sentence by itself, without the other element.

  • Mary and (I or me?) tried to stay awake for the late show, but by midnight we were sound asleep.
  • (I tried to stay awake, so I is the right choice.)
  • Brad Pitt sent Oscar invitations to Johnny and (I or me?).
  • (Brad Pitt sent invitations to me, so me is the right choice.)
  • Will Brad Pitt escort (he and I? him and me?) down the red carpet?
  • (Will Brad Pitt escort him? Will Brad Pitt escort me? So him and me is the right choice.)

The grammatical explanation is that I is the subject form of the pronoun, and in the first sentence above, Mary and I are subjects. Me is the object form. In the second sentence, it’s the object of a preposition (to); in the third, it’s the object of a verb (will escort).

Compounds are generally not that difficult. Yet even people who have sorted them out occasionally come up with sentences like this:

  • For more information on our fabulous oilseed products, please contact the director or myself.

The sentence should read "please contact the director or me," because me is the object of the verb contact (please contact me). But, like the government manager who fessed up to her fears, some people shy away from me and use myself instead, thinking it’s more formal. Sadly, it’s just wrong. Myself, like all the other -self/-selves pronouns, has two main uses: as an emphatic pronoun (I myself disagree, you yourself know) and as a reflexive pronoun (I pinched myself, they hurt themselves). Neither use fits the sentence above.

What’s the hands-down winner for most misused compound? It’s not empirically proven, but I would vote for that favourite of popular songwriters (not to mention gossips)—"between you and I." No matter how many times you’ve heard this, no matter how natural it sounds, the correct wording is "between you and me." Between is a preposition, and like all prepositions it needs an object.

Comparisons

Prepositions, or the idea of them, can get writers into trouble with comparisons. We express comparisons using the words than or as. Prepositions, right? Automatically followed by objects?

No. When used in comparisons, than and as are subordinating conjunctions. They begin dependent, or subordinate, clauses. But in comparisons, those clauses are often missing words. The only way to know which pronoun form to use in a comparison is to think of the full clause the conjunction introduces. Consider these examples:

  • Dieter is a more skillful taxidermist than (I or me?).
  • (Dieter is more skillful than I am, so I is the right choice.)
  • I travel to Montréal more often than (he or him?).
  • (I travel more often than he travels, so he is the right choice.)
  • The company doesn’t send my colleague on as many business trips as (I or me?).
  • (The company doesn’t send my colleague on as many trips as it sends me on, so me is the right choice.)
  • Harriet enjoys harpsichord recitals more than (I or me?).
  • (The choice depends on what the sentence means. Harriet enjoys recitals more than I do? Or Harriet enjoys recitals more than she enjoys me?)

As you can see from the last sentence, pronoun choice can be a touchy business. Use the wrong form and you risk misleading, if not offending. That’s why in formal writing it’s often worth writing comparisons out in full, to squelch any misunderstandings.

Appositives

"We the people. . . ." This famous phrase opens the United States Constitution, is the name of several political organizations in that country and, in a slightly modified form ("We, the peoples. . . ."), begins the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations.

The phrase also contains an appositive, a grammatical structure that wreaks its fair share of havoc among pronouns. An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed next to, or very close to, another noun or pronoun in the sentence to rename it: his friend Elizabeth, the director Ang Lee, my sister the vampire.

When an appositive follows a pronoun, it’s easy to lose sight of the pronoun’s function in the sentence. The best approach is to ignore the appositive and, as with compounds, try the pronoun by itself in the sentence.

  • Everybody thinks that (we or us?) Maritimers should all like fish.
  • (Everybody thinks that we should all like fish, so we is the right choice.)
  • The truth is, because we ate so much of it growing up, fish makes some of (we or us?) Maritimers gag.
  • (Fish makes some of us gag, so us is the right choice.)

Proper form

In the world of pronouns, form is everything. And choosing the proper form gets easier with practice. If you learn the right tricks, exercise them regularly and kick your bad childhood habits, soon your pronouns, and your writing, will be in top form.