Monday, April 8, 2019

R&R: Raves and Rants With Amanda Cabot

A Case of Pronouns   

When you read the title, did you expect to see a picture of a packing carton with “He, she, it” and other pronouns tumbling out of the top? I doubt Leslie will be able to find that graphic, so we’ll have to make do with nothing more than words as we discuss pronouns and their cases.

Depending on your perspective, English is either an easy or a difficult language to learn, particularly where nouns are concerned. Unlike German or Latin, which have different forms of a noun depending on its purpose in a sentence, the way English speakers distinguish between the subject and the object of a sentence is by the word’s position in the sentence, not by a unique form of the noun. Subjects come first; objects follow.

Let’s try some examples.

       The cake is in the refrigerator. In this case, “cake” is the subject of the sentence.

         We ate the entire cake. Even though the word is spelled exactly the same way as it was in the first sentence, this time the cake is the object.

Pronouns are different. While position in the sentence is still critical, pronouns have different forms depending on their case. Case, according to my dictionary, is “an inflectional form of a noun, pronoun, or adjective indicating its grammatical relation to other words.” Clear? Probably not, so keep reading.

Pronouns have three major cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. Those terms can be a bit confusing, since “subjective” and “objective” have more than one meaning. In this case, “subjective” refers to the person who’s taking the action in a sentence, while “objective” denotes the recipient of that action.

You (either singular or plural)

       Subjective Case – If Charles was the one who ate the cake, and you wanted to use a pronoun instead of his name, you’d say “He ate the cake.”

       Objective Case – If the book was given to Mary, but you didn’t want to use her name, you’d say, “The book was given to her.” (Don’t shudder at the passive tense here. We’re going to talk about that in another rant.)

       Possessive Case – If we’re discussing people who live in a specific city, we might say, “Their homes are in Cheyenne.”

As long as you know which case you need and have access to a table like the one I’ve included, finding the right pronoun should be easy. Notice that I said “should.” All too often I see and hear errors.

There are a number of reasons people choose the wrong case.

Confusing Position
Sometimes errors are the result of confusion caused by the position of the pronoun in the sentence. Consider this:

          Who should Mary ask to bake the cake?

The speaker probably thought that he should use the subjective case, since the pronoun began the sentence. But Mary is asking someone – the object of the sentence – to bake a cake, so you need the objective case. The correct sentence is, “Whom should Mary ask to bake the cake?”

Multiple Pronouns Serving the Same Function
Errors with multiple pronouns are all too common, but there’s a simple way to determine which case you need. Rewrite the sentence with only one pronoun and see what makes sense.

       It was a busy day for him and I.

“It was a busy day for him” is correct, because the preposition “for” demands an object after it. On the other hand, “It was a busy day for I” is a sentence that makes a grammarian cringe, because the author has used the subjective case. The sentence ought to be, “It was a busy day for him and me.”

What about this one?

          Him and I went to the movies.

“Him” did not go to the movies. In this case, you need the subjective case for both pronouns. The correct version is, “He and I went to the movies.”

Shorthand Phrases
No, that’s not an official grammatical term, but there are times when the best way to determine which pronoun case is needed is to turn a phrase into a full sentence.

What do you think about this sentence? Is it correct?

       Sue was busier than me.

If you thought it was correct, think again. This sentence is an abbreviated version of “Sue was busier than I was.” You need the subjective case. That’s why you should say “busier than I,” no matter how wrong it may sound.

Here’s another example.

       Jim likes her brother more than she.

You’ve probably guessed that it’s wrong, and that’s the case (pun intended). The full version is “Jim likes her brother more than he likes her.” We need the objective case here.

There are other things to consider about pronouns, including independent possessive pronouns and subjective complements, but we’ll save them for another month. Come back in June, when we’re going to tackle the pesky passive voice.


Amanda Cabot HeadshotCover of A Tender Hope
A lifetime of reading and writing, not to mention a host of teachers who believed that good grammar was one of the essentials of life, have given Amanda Cabot such firm opinions about the printed word that I asked her to share some with us in her Raves and Rants posts.  

Although her working career was in Information Technology, Amanda achieved her dream of selling her first novel before her thirtieth birthday and is now the author of more than thirty novels as well as a number of books and articles for Information Technology professionals.  

Her most recent book, A Tender Hope, is the final book of the Cimarron Creek trilogy.

Find all of Amanda's books, newsletter info and social media links here.

1 comment:

  1. Amanda,
    Thank you for your post on pronouns. I got one wrong as I was guessing and it was this one. “Sue was busier than I was.” You need the subjective case.

    See you in June,
    Hugs ~L.A.