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Two More Reasons Pronouns Plague Us

For several weeks now, we’ve been counting the ways that pronouns give us nightmares. Today we’ll look at two more culprits: infinitives and verbs that end in -ing (known technically as participles and gerunds).

To form an infinitive, precede a verb with the word to. The infinitive of look is to look. Constructions like to be looking, to have looked, and to have been looking are also infinitives.

Note what happens if we paraphrase I believe he is honest, using an infinitive: I believe him to be honest. The presence of the infinitive (to be) turns he (the subject of is) into him (the object of believe).

If we change the statement to a question, should we use who or whom? The rule of thumb we discussed when this series began in September is who = he (subject) and whom = him (object). So it would be correct to say Who do you believe is honest? (Who is honest, do you believe?)

But with an infinitive, Whom do you believe to be honest? would be correct. (Do you believe him to be honest?)

The situation is similar with verbs ending in -ing. There are times when an -ing verb in a sentence lets you say the same thing with either a subject pronoun or an object pronoun. For instance, you could say We recall she was driving home or We recall her driving home.

Again, converting those statements to who-or-whom questions poses a challenge. Who do you recall was driving home? would be correct. (Who was driving home, do you recall?) And Whom do you recall driving home? would also be correct. (Do you recall her driving home?)

Such fine distinctions further illustrate why certain everyday pronouns are endlessly confounding.

To be continued…

Pop Quiz

Find the grammatically correct pronouns.

1. I discovered they/them and Al sleeping in the barn.

2. I discovered they/them and Al were sleeping in the barn.

3. Mary trusted we/us and the team would return her car.

4. Mary trusted we/us and the team to return her car.

5. Who/whom do you predict to win the match?

6. Who/whom do you predict will win the match?

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I discovered them and Al sleeping in the barn.

2. I discovered they and Al were sleeping in the barn.

3. Mary trusted we and the team would return her car.

4. Mary trusted us and the team to return her car.

5. Whom do you predict to win the match?

6. Who do you predict will win the match?

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Posted on Tuesday, November 5, 2013, at 1:48 pm


Yet More Pronoun Pitfalls

This is part five in a loose series detailing the difficulty of mastering pronouns. Even simple sentences can include snares that distract us from distinguishing between subjects and objects.

Two weeks ago, we showed that pronouns linked by any form of the verb to be wrongly become objects in everyday English, which prefers It’s me or It could be her to the formally correct It’s I and It could be she.

Last week, we showed that in colloquial sentences with compound subjects or objects, personal pronouns are routinely confused, resulting in faulty usages such as Him and Joe went fishing or It happened to my wife and I. We also cautioned against mixing a subject pronoun with an object pronoun joined by and or or, as in her and I or either he or us, because in such constructions, one of the pronouns will always be wrong.

Unfortunately, there’s more. In many comparative sentences, pronoun confusion is an unwelcome byproduct. Two common troublemakers are as and than. Sentences like She works as hard as me and I’m luckier than him sound fine to most people—but not if we repeat the verb: no one would say, “She works as hard as me work” or “I’m luckier than him is.” Adding the verb confirms that the strictly proper usages would be She works as hard as I and I’m luckier than he.

Now consider I depend on you more than him. It’s correct if the subject (I) thinks you’re the one who is more dependable. But if the intended meaning is “I depend on you more than he depends on you,” than he would be the choice.

Back in the sixties, the Beatles sang, “I must be sure from the very start that you would love me more than her.” They meant, “I must be sure that you would love me more than she loves me.” But a close reading reveals that they said something spicier: “I must be sure that you would love me more than you love her.”

So be careful: a humble pronoun used incorrectly may create a major distraction.

 

Pop Quiz

Find the grammatically correct pronouns.

1. She’s as capable as I/me.

2. My little brother looks older than he/him.

3. I’d rather give it to you than to Bill or they/them.

4. You must trust him more than we/us, because we’re not at all sure about him.

5. He’s not honest with either of us. He’d lie to you as sure as I/me.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. She’s as capable as I.

2. My little brother looks older than he.

3. I’d rather give it to you than to Bill or them. (them is the object of to)

4. You must trust him more than we, because we’re not at all sure about him. (than we do)

5. He’s not honest with either of us. He’d lie to you as sure as me. (as sure as he’d lie to me)

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Posted on Monday, October 28, 2013, at 1:29 pm


Shape-shifting Troublemakers

No nouns in our language behave like pronouns. The most common subject pronouns (I, he, she, we, they, who, whoever) all become different words (me, him, her, us, them, whom, whomever) when they are objects.

Colloquial English has always thumbed its nose at proper English. A seemingly innocent everyday sentence like It’s me is Exhibit A.

As we discussed last time, in formal English, It’s me is wrong, and It’s I is correct. In such sentences, pronouns linked by any form of the verb to be are equivalent to subjects—but me is an object pronoun. If It’s me were correct, then we’d also have to say, “Me is it.”

Down through the years, correct pronoun usage has been of little concern to the masses, who would rather drink from Lake Erie than say, “The culprit was they, but we thought it might be he.”

Having dealt last week with the havoc that the verb to be wreaks in sentences with pronouns, let’s look now at another disruption to correct English: compound subjects and compound objects that contain pronouns.

A compound subject is two or more nouns or pronouns joined most commonly by and or or. Joe and I is a compound subject. It is correct in Joe and I went fishing.

Joe and her is a compound object. It is correct in The group chose Joe and her.

Here is an easy, foolproof way to get such sentences right: Remove the noun and say the sentence with just the pronoun. Without the nouns, the two sentences are a breeze: I went fishing and The group chose her. Using this method exposes incorrect sentences such as It was up to Joe and I and Either me or Joe will help, because we’d never say, “It was up to I” or “Me will help.”

One more thing: It is always wrong to mix subject and object pronouns, such as “her and I.” In an oft-heard sentence like “Her and I arrived,” it’s clear that I arrived is correct, but no one would say “her arrived,” so the sentence requires she, the subject pronoun: She and I arrived.

More on finding the correct pronoun next time…

Pop Quiz

Correct any wayward compound subjects or objects.

1. Me and him went to the game.

2. The dog was always with Vinnie and I.

3. May my wife and me join you for dinner?

4. Either you or him must be willing to help.

5. Alice and me were who it was meant for.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. He and I went to the game.

2. The dog was always with Vinnie and me.

3. May my wife and I join you for dinner?

4. Either you or he must be willing to help.

5. Alice and I were whom it was meant for. (whom is the object of the preposition for)

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Posted on Monday, October 21, 2013, at 5:25 pm


I Subject, Your Honor

Last month, in discussions of who-whom and whoever-whomever, we passed along a handy memory aid: who (and whoever) = he; whom (and whomever) = him.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere unless we can tell a subject (he) from an object (him).

One reason that distinguishing between subjects and objects is so difficult can be traced to what’s called the subject complement, a fancy term for the B in A = B. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a subject complement: it = you.

Math teaches us that if A = B, then B = A. If it = you, then you = it. In the sentence It is you, the word you is a kind of secondary subject.

However, you stays the same whether it’s a subject or an object. Things get trickier with the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they, who, and whoever, which all change forms when they function as objects (me, him, her, us, them, whom, and whomever).

A conversational sentence like It’s me is technically wrong, because me is the object form of I, when what we need is a subject complement. Therefore, It’s I would be proper English (it = I). Remember, if It is I, then I am it. Since no one says, “Me am it,” It’s me can’t be correct.

Look at these everyday sentences: It’s us. Wait, it was him. No, it has been them all along. But it could’ve been her. We hear these all the time—and every one of them is technically incorrect. In such sentences, informal speech tends to prefer object pronouns like me, her, and them over the formally correct I, she, and they. Who knows why? They just sound better, or something. For whatever reason, not many folks we meet on the street would say, “It’s we.” “It was he.” “It has been they.” “It could’ve been she.”

But no one can ever master whom and whomever without knowing when object pronouns in everyday speech should be changed to subject complements in formal English.

More next time…

Pop Quiz

Make the following colloquial sentences consistent with formal English.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be me.
2. The way I see it, it must have been them.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whomever else.
4. It ended up being her who the group could count on.
5. It seemed like them, but it was him.

Pop Quiz Answers

These answers are academically correct. But if you talk to your friends like this, you’re on your own.

1. She’s just glad it turned out to be I.
2. The way I see it, it must have been they.
3. The culprits were Joe, Jack, Jake, and whoever else.
4. It ended up being she whom the group could count on. (whom is the object of the verb count on)
5. It seemed like them, but it was he. (them is the object of the preposition like)

This grammar tip was contributed by veteran copy editor and word nerd Tom Stern.

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Posted on Monday, October 14, 2013, at 2:55 pm


Sweating the Small Stuff

At a football game a few weeks ago, Notre Dame University sold soda in cups that said, “Figthing Irish.” Did no one at this distinguished school have the time or pride to proofread a two-word slogan?

Here are a few other items we’ve seen recently and now wish we hadn’t…

Back to Basics Many professional journalists can’t find the subjects in their own sentences, like this one: “The final installment of those tapes—340 hours—were made public.” Make it “was made public.” The writer, distracted by “tapes” and “hours,” forgot that the subject, “installment,” was singular.

Ho-Hum: More Who-Whom Recently in this space, we discussed the difference between who (subject) and whom (object). Pronoun confusion has plagued our language for centuries. Some now claim that English would be fine without whom. But whom holds some mysterious attraction for people who shouldn’t be using it, because they keep getting it wrong, as in “…a man whom he thought was ready” (make it “who he thought was ready”).

Compare that with “Brown, who investigators had trouble reaching for interviews” and “Schulman, who he met on a blind date.” Here the writers were handed whom on a silver platter, but instead chose “who.”

How the Cookie Deconstructs Flawed sentences like those result from either carelessness or grammatical cluelessness. Just as prevalent, and deadly, is poor word choice caused by fuzzy thinking. Here’s a writer who sabotaged his own metaphor when he wrote, “…before the whole house of cards crumbles.”

Dead leaves and old walls crumble. A house of cards collapses.

POP QUIZ

Try to spot the errors or lapses in these sentences, written by professionals.

1. “The case is the latest in a series that have fueled public protests.”
2. “He was convicted in absentia to 20 years in prison.”
3. “…and Steenkamp, whom he believed was still in the bedroom.”
4. “A deadline to Syria to turnover its weapons.”
5. “The first time either of them have heard the recording.”

POP QUIZ ANSWERS

Not all of these sentences have one right answer. See if your remedies agree with ours.

1. The case is the latest in a series of events that have fueled public protests.
2. He was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison.
3. …and Steenkamp, who he believed was still in the bedroom. (i.e., who was still in the bedroom, he believed)
4. A deadline to Syria to turn over its weapons.
5. The first time either of them has heard the recording.

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Posted on Wednesday, October 2, 2013, at 2:19 pm