For you and me, pronouns can be a personal matter

Why the misuse of ‘I’ is rampant, and how you can address it.

There it was.

In a news story on the front page of the Columbia Missourian, the newspaper written and edited by the students of the Missouri School of Journalism under the tight supervision of its faculty of experienced editors — there it was.

“… but he’s hoping this is the first phase of several that might eventually lead to a bridge over Perche Creek, which he said would give he and his wife better access to the city’s center.”

Now if that’s not enough to make you cough up your morning coffee, what is?

So many people tell me they might not know the rules of grammar, but they know what sounds right. The trouble with that “he” in the above example is that it begins to sound right. The same is true of the people who say “between you and I,” or “he took my wife and I to dinner.” They sound so erudite, so educated.

The only pronoun worse than the “I” in the above examples would be the intensive or reflexive pronoun “myself.” Some years ago I sat through a faculty council meeting with the president of the university and the chancellor of our campus, and all afternoon they kept saying, “The president and myself are in complete agreement,” or “The chancellor and myself discussed that last week.” At least my urge to barf kept me awake during the meeting. Red Smith, the great sports writer, once said, “Myself is the refuge of idiots taught early in life to avoid the word me.”

But back to the use of “I” rather than “me.” When you were a child and you asked your mother, “Can me and Mary go to the playground?” she might have responded sharply, “May Mary and I go to the playground?”

I have long believed that is why people say things like, “He took my wife and I to dinner.” Some years ago, when there was such a group, I addressed the medical faculty wives here at the University of Missouri on the topic, “Why don’t we teach our children to speak English?” When I started to speak about the horrors of saying “I” instead of “me,” a majority of the group objected strongly. “You must be wrong,” they said. “I have been teaching my children to use ‘I’ in those instances all these years.”

Perhaps some people think they sound smarter or more educated when they use “I” rather than “me” as children do.

The trouble is that it’s not easy explaining why the “I” should be “me.” Can you do it? Is it worth your time? Will your writers (and speakers) just continue to make the same mistakes over and over again?

How do you start? You just can’t say, “Look, dummy, a pronoun following a preposition or a transitive verb must be in the objective case.”

That’s a mouthful. I find quite a few professional people in my seminars who aren’t sure what the pronoun is, are less sure what a preposition is, have no idea what a transitive verb is, are lucky to know what a verb is, and are mystified by the objective case.

Subjective (nominative) case

Singular Plural

I we
you you
he, she, it they

Again, where do you start? Well, pronouns take the place of nouns. In our daily conversations, we use personal pronouns a great deal, especially in conversations. Nouns and pronouns have:

1. Gender — masculine, feminine and neuter
2. Number — singular and plural
3. Case — subjective, objective and possessive (Case refers to a grammatical function in the larger context of a phrase or clause.)

We use the subjective or nominative case for the subjects of clauses.

Incorrect: “Me and Ann are sisters.”
Correct: “Ann and I are sisters.”

We also use the subjective case for personal pronouns after copulative, linking or intransitive (verbs that do not take an object) verbs. Grammarians call this a predicate nominative.

Incorrect: This is him.
Correct: This is he.

A few years ago I called the public–relations office of the campus here and asked for Kathy, a former graduate student who had taken my editing course. She said, “This is her.” I paused. Then she said, “Oh, my God, it’s you!”

Does it make any difference if the person answering your phone speaks incorrect English? What impression does it make?

After my daughter finally graduated from college, she was sitting by the phone waiting word to confirm her first job. The phone rang, and in a most delightful voice, she said, “This is she.” When she knew her job might depend on it, she spoke English for the first time in her life. So I knew all those years before then, it was sheer defiance.

Now to the objective case. Note the pronouns in the objective case in the box below.

Objective case

Singular Plural

me us
you you
him, her, it them

Let’s begin with the direct object of a transitive verb. If you studied Latin, you might have called this the accusative case.

Incorrect: Bob took she and Larry to the store.
Correct: Bob took Larry and her to the store.

We use the objective case also as an indirect object of a verb. If you studied Latin, you might have called this the dative case.

Personal pronouns – subjective (nominative) case

Singular Plural

I we
you you
he, she, it they

Incorrect: Jane gave Mary and he a present.
Correct: Jane gave Mary and him a present.

You can always recognize an indirect object by inserting the word “to” or “for” before the object.

Example: She gave a present to Mary and to him.

A third use of the objective case is as the object of a preposition. A preposition is a word that expresses a relationship such as “under,” “above,” “to,” “into,” “around,” “in,” “inside,” “of,” “between,” etc. I have frequently had people in my seminars who could sing all of the prepositions. Wonderful!

Incorrect: George sat behind Lilly and I.
Correct: George sat behind Lilly and me.

Your English teacher probably told you to check yourself by taking out “Lilly and” in the incorrect version above. Surely you would not say, “George sat behind I.”

Though I am tempted to skip it, I know that if I don’t mention it, some will get me for it. There is a fourth use of the objective case, and that is as a subject of an infinitive.

Example: No one expects him to run for a third term.
Example: Mary does not want her to go.

Note the infinitives “to run” and “to go” in those examples.

Possessive case

Singular Plural

my, mine our, ours
your, yours your, yours
his, her, hers, its their, theirs

And we must mention a third case, the possessive case.

For English nouns we usually indicate possession or ownership by adding an apostrophe and an “s” (though now we see the apostrophe used so much — and so incorrectly — to form the plural of nouns). Sometimes we just add an apostrophe. For the possessive case of the personal pronouns, we use no apostrophes. Notice again, no apostrophes. The biggest failure is with “its.” Remember, “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.” And for heaven’s sakes, don’t put an apostrophe outside the “s.”

Don Ranly is professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism where he taught for 32 years. Ranly has worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, a weekly columnist, a radio host and television producer, director and host.

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