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We the People, or…?

For much of the last two months, we have been analyzing why the subject pronouns I, he, she, we, they and the object pronouns me, him, her, us, them are chronically misused and confused.

In this final installment, we’ll deal with flawed sentences like Politicians should respect we the people and It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last.

Formal writing requires “us the people” (object of respect) and “him who laughs last” (object of for), even though we instinctively resist tampering with venerable expressions like we the people and he who laughs last.

If being correct would ruin the mood, there may be creative ways around the grammatical buzzkill. In the first case, we could probably avoid censure by using capitals: Politicians should respect We the People. This signals the reader that the well-known phrase is sacrosanct and must not be altered.

In the second example, we could write: a happy outcome for “he who laughs last.”  The quotation marks grant the words special dispensation, like the title of a book or movie.

So now, here is a summary of the chief causes of pronoun confusion.

• All forms of the verb to be. Informal sentences (It was me, It must have been them, It seems to be her) wrongly use object pronouns instead of what are called subject complements. (The correct pronouns respectively would be I, they, and she.)

• Compound subjects and compound objects. In everyday speech, when and or or links a pronoun with other nouns or pronouns, the results are often ungrammatical: Joe and him went fishing, Sue invited my friend and I for dinner, Her or I will meet you there. (The correct pronouns respectively would be he, me, and she.)

• Comparative sentences using as or than. Sentences like You’re as smart as her and Eddie ran faster than them sound fine but are technically flawed. (The correct pronouns respectively would be she and they.)

• Infinitives and verbs ending in -ing. They change subjects to objects. An infinitive such as to be turns I believe he is honest into I believe him to be honest. A verb ending in -ing, such as going, gives us the option of saying either I saw he was going home or I saw him going home. This can be especially confusing with compound subjects and objects, or when who-whom is involved.

• Idiomatic phrases containing subject pronouns (we the people, he who laughs last).

 

Pop Quiz

Correct any sentences that are formally ungrammatical.

1. LaTroy knew it was him who everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we.

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and I.

4. May him and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as me.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he.

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something?

8. Who do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for we citizens of the United States.

10. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. LaTroy knew it was he whom everyone preferred.

2. According to witnesses, it had to have been we. CORRECT

3. The receipts were always safe with Maria and me.

4. May he and his friend join us for a nightcap?

5. She’s every bit as confused as I.

6. Your cousin’s wife looks older than he. CORRECT

7. Who do you suspect was hiding something? CORRECT

8. Whom do you suspect to be hiding something?

9. This has been a bad week for us citizens of the United States.

10. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

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Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at 6:54 pm


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