Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Grammar Moment: Pronoun Case

The basic rule: cut the extra words and see if it makes sense

Here’s a question that stymies a lot of users of the English language: When should one use the subject case of pronouns (I, he, she, we, they, who), and when should one use the object case (me, him, her, us, them, whom)?

The rule itself is pretty simple. If the pronoun is the subject of the sentence, you use the subject case. If the pronoun renames the subject following a linking verb, you use the subject case. For all other purposes, you use the object case. Thus, you say

I went to the store.

and not

Me went to the store.

The business with renaming the subject following a linking verb is fairly obscure, and the rule is broken so often that it actually sounds odd when someone uses it right:

The charity’s secret benefactress was I.

The test for whether you have a linking verb is whether you can turn the sentence around and have it still make sense. If you can swap the front end and back end of the sentence without changing the meaning, then you’re renaming the subject, so you use the subject case:

I was the charity’s secret benefactress.

Because the sentence often sounds awkward when the rule is used right, you may be more comfortable avoiding the problem by rewriting the sentence to put the pronoun at the beginning, as I just did above.

Now, for any situation other than the subject or renaming the subject, you use the object case of the pronoun:

The store clerk gave me my change.


The store clerk gave I my change.

So far, so good. You’re probably already getting pronoun case right nearly all of the time without even thinking about it. So what’s the problem? Well, sometimes there are extra words that sneak in and clutter up the issue:

Me and Dudley went to the store.

To figure out which pronoun to use, temporarily remove the extra words, in this case, and Dudley:

Me went to the store.

Oops. Now you know you should use I:

Dudley and I went to the store.

You will also note that I have changed the order of the subjects. This is not actually a grammar rule, but rather one of etiquette. It’s polite to refrain from mentioning yourself first.

Now, some people have been corrected on me and Dudley so often that they think they should always use Dudley and I:

The clerk gave Dudley and I our change.

Try the test again to see whether you have it right:

The clerk gave I our change.

Nope, doesn’t work. You need to use me:

The clerk gave Dudley and me our change.

The other situation in which extra words slip into the sentence is when the pronoun is followed by words that clarify whom the pronoun refers to:

We sailors like breezy days.

How do you know whether to use us or we? Just as before, you take out the extra words and see whether the sentence sounds right:

We like breezy days.

Ah, now you see? Try this one:

Landlubbers don’t understand we sailors.

Test by removing the extra word(s):

Landlubbers don’t understand we.

Get the right pronoun:

Landlubbers don’t understand us.

Put the extra word(s) back to complete the sentence:

Landlubbers don’t understand us sailors.

All of this brings me around to the comment from another blog that inspired this post in the first place:

Thanks for the humorous, yet informative cinematic augmentation. Us visual learners like that.

Test by removing extra words:

Us like that.

Nope. It’s

We like that.

So here’s the corrected version:

We visual learners like that.

Now, isn’t that simple?


Anonymous Jerry said...

Is "... words that clarify who the pronoun refers to" correct? I would have used "whom".

Fri Jun 09, 06:09:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous Mom said...

Thanks, this is one of my pet peeves--and I hear people who should know better--news anchors, ministers, even teachers--who don't know how to use these words!

Most pet peeve is lie and lay. Have you done that one yet?

Fri Jun 09, 10:47:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Jer, you're right ... working on fixing it now ...

Fri Jun 09, 11:22:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous Jerry said...

This stuff really seemed complicated before I started taking Czech lessons.

Fri Jun 09, 04:10:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Thomas McAllister said...

This is also one of my pet peeves, so I was glad to see this post. I hear the phrase "between you and I" quite a bit. So many people assume that "I" is automatically more correct than "me"...

Wed Jun 14, 03:25:00 PM MDT  

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