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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.

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


8 Comments

8 Responses to “We the People, or…?”

  1. Diane T. says:

    How do you figure the preamble of the Constitution should really begin “Us the people”??????? We the people….do… It’s the subject of the sentence, and the last time I looked in a grammar book, “us” is the object, not the subject.

    • Jane says:

      I’m afraid you have misinterpreted the point of the article. We are not talking about We the people as correctly used as a subject in the opening of the Constitution. As pointed out in the second paragraph, we are referring to the flawed sentence, Politicians should respect we the people, where it is clearly an object of the word respect. It is certainly not correct to say “Politicians should respect we.” Rather, it should be Politicians should respect us.

  2. Anthony D. says:

    Great series-good idea, thanks.

  3. Matt S. says:

    If I’m still wrong on this one, I’ll hang up my gavel.

    The construct “We the People” makes no logical sense. Grammatically, it should be “We, the people…” because “the people” is an extra piece of information clarifying who “We” is. And in that, the use of “We” is correct, because it is “We” not “Us” who “do ordain this Constitution.”

    Similarly, the phrase “It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last” is using a function “he who laughs last” to return the object. The use of “he” applies to who is laughing last, not for whom the happy outcome is.
    The happy outcome is for [Person1 (whom)]
    [Person1]=Function(“he who laughs last”)

    • Jane says:

      As with a previous writer, I’m afraid you have misinterpreted the point of the article. We are not talking about We the people as correctly used as a subject in the opening of the Constitution. As pointed out in the second paragraph, we are referring to the flawed sentence, Politicians should respect we the people, where it is clearly an object of the word respect. It is certainly not correct to say “Politicians should respect we.” Rather, it should be Politicians should respect us.

      The writers of the Constitution were also correct in writing We the people not We, the people because the people is essential information. Essential information is not set off by commas.

      Also, your views on “he who” are in opposition to those of every English authority alive.

      Thanks for writing. It’s been interesting reflecting on your perspective.

  4. Jesse Strauss says:

    To make Matt S. happy (for using a subjective pronoun), Jane happy (for grammatical correctness), and me happy (for applying a lesson I learned from a blog post a while back), how about I propose the following:

    “It’s a happy outcome for whoever laughs last!”

    I included an exclamation point because we are all happy, and I have one additional question. Which is correct:

    “…one additional question. Which is correct:”
    “…one additional question: Which is correct?”
    “…one additional question. Which is correct?:”
    Other not listed?!?

    Thanks for your grammatical assistance. Yours truly,

    -J

    • Jane says:

      Yes, that’s a happy outcome!

      Your second question is in a gray area. A writer or editor must decide between a colon and a question mark, because using both, as in your third alternative, is clunky. The issue is clarity. The sentence “Which is correct:” is obviously a question, but one could defend the colon. If what comes after the word correct is short, the question mark would come at the end.
      Example:
      I have one additional question: Which is correct, who or whom? (Since what comes after the colon is a complete sentence, capitalization of which is advised, but optional.)

      However, what do we do when what comes after the word correct is a listing of items? Since questions need question marks, we do not believe that the lack of a colon would be confusing to people.
      Example:
      I have one additional question. Which is correct? OR I have one additional question: Which is correct?
      1. It’s a happy outcome for he who laughs last!
      2. It’s a happy outcome for he whom laughs last!
      3. It’s a happy outcome for him who laughs last!
      4. It’s a happy outcome for whoever laughs last!

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