Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pronoun usage

Today, the sticky problem of pronouns. We all know what they are, and we may think we have a good handle on using them. However, as all too many writers know, sometimes we end up with clinkers like “Joan gave the candy to Bill and I.” I’m writing this entry in Word to cut & paste later, and this time, it actually caught the mistake. You can’t always count on your word processing program to have better grammar than you do.

The problem.

The “I or me” problem usually happens because, as a child, the writer misused “me” in sentences like “Jimmy and me went to the store.” After years of hearing “and I,” the child mistakenly thinks (consciously or subconsciously) that “and me” is never correct. That isn't the case, of course. "And me" is always correct when it is part of the object of the sentence.

Determine which of the following is correct.

  • Joey and me need some answers.
  • Joey and I need some answers.
  • Janet gave Bill and I some coffee.
  • Janet gave Bill and me some coffee.

The fix.

In order to figure out whether to use "and I" or "and me" in sentences, take out the other party, e.g., Joey and Bill. Since you would never say "Me need some answers" or "Janet gave I some coffee," it's easy to see which ones to use. Your correct sentences are below:

  • Joey and I need some answers. (I need some answers.)
  • Janet gave Bill and me some coffee. (Janet gave me some coffee.)

The problem.

Who and whom. I have read some published books where the author was unsure about whether to use who or whom in a sentence, and the editor didn't know, either. While I have no objection to their being misused in conversation (after all, proper usage goes to indicate education levels, and you wouldn't expect someone with a third-grade education to use who and whom properly; unfortunately, in real life, I've heard people with doctorates misuse them!), in prose, it just reflects badly on the author and the editor.

  • Who did you say was calling?
  • Whom did you say was calling?

If the sentences above were:

  • Who was calling?
  • Whom was calling?

you wouldn't have any trouble picking the right answer, because it's obvious. The two earlier sentences are trickier, because, at a glance, they both look right.

The fix.

In order to determine who or whom, just substitute the proper pronoun for the person who is calling. E.g. the answer to the above question, if keeping to the who/whom subject/object format, comes out like this:

  • He was calling (or she was calling).
  • Him (or her) was calling.

That makes the answer easy to see!

In conclusion, just determine whether your pronoun is the subject of the sentence or the object of the verb. The subject will be I, you, (thee), he, she, it, we, you, they. Object pronouns are me, you, (thou), him, her, it, us, you, them. So, It and You remain the same whether they are subjects or objects, while the rest of the pronouns are irregular.

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