Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Case of the pesky pronouns

by Vivian Zabel   

          Unclear or incorrect pronoun usage confuses readers, yet so many people use those pesky pronouns incorrectly so often they don't recognize that the incorrect usage does not sound intelligent, just ignorant. I listen to television commentators and reporters mange the English language every day, but their most glaring misuse is with pronouns.

          Let's have a brief pronoun refresher course. We'll begin with the basics: Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. They are singular and/or plural in nature. They come in first person, second person, and third person.

                                  Singular                                                    Plural

1st person          I, me, my, mine, myself                           we, us, our, ours, ourselves
2nd person        you, your, yours, yourself                        you, your, yours, yourself
3rd person        she, he, it, her, him, his, hers, its,             they, them, their, theirs, themselves
                                 herself, himself, itself

           Now, those pronouns can be used as subjects of sentences or clauses or as predicate nominatives (rename subject after a linking verb): I, we, you, she, he, it, they. They can be used as objects (objects of prepositions, direction objects, indirect objects): me, us, you, her, him, it, them. They also have a possessive form: my, mine, our, ours, your,  her, his, hers, its, their, theirs. 

          Subject/nominative forms of pronouns can only be used as subjects, predicate nominatives/pronouns, or appositives for subjects or predicate nominatives, never for objects of any kind.  Object forms cannot be used as a subject or predicate nominative, only as objects of prepositions, direct objects, or indirect objects.

Incorrect: Me and Joe went fishing yesterday. Me is an object form and cannot be used as a subject.
Correct: Joe and I went fishing yesterday.
Incorrect: This discussion is between Mary and I. Between is a preposition and must have the object form of a pronoun.
Correct: This discussion is between Mary and me. 
Incorrect: The cake was baked by Jeannie and I.
Correct: The cake was baked by Jeannie and me.
Better: Jeannie and I baked the cake. This sentence avoids passive voice and has a active verb.
Incorrect: The better speller is me. Me cannot be used as a predicate nominative, even though we often use it incorrectly. A predicate nominative should be interchangeable with the subject, and we shouldn't use Me is the better speller.
Correct: The better speller is I. This pronoun usage is correct because I am the better speller is correct.

          The reflective form, with self or selves at the end, are used only for emphasis or to refer back to the nominative or object form of the pronoun or a noun that is close by in the sentence. In other words, myself can't be by itself; I must be close by.

Incorrect: Mary and myself decided to go to town. Myself does not have a close pronoun to refer to and is never a subject.
Correct: Mary and I decided to go to town.
Correct: I want to do the job myself.
Correct: John and Terry finished the addition all by themselves.
Incorrect: The presentation by Tom and myself went well. The reflective form of a pronoun can never be used as an object.
Correct: The presentation by Tom and me went well.

          The possessive form of pronouns show ownership. They will be used before a noun or as a predicate adjective (following a linking verb and referring back to the subject to show ownership).

Correct: That book is his.
Correct: That is his book. 

          Often pronouns are confused with other words which sound the same but are spelled differently. Its is the possessive pronoun, while it's means it is. Their is the possessive pronoun, while they're means they are, and there means a direction or introductory word. Theirs is the possessive pronoun, while there's means there is. Your is the possessive pronoun, while you're means you are. Possessive pronouns never have an apostrophe.

Incorrect: Why did you take they're papers?   Why did you take there papers?
Correct: Why did you take their papers?
Incorrect:  The dog cut it's paw. How did the dog cut it is paw?
Correct: The dog cut its paw.

          Hopefully, this short, quick refresher course will help us all remember how to use pronouns correctly.


  1. Thanks for the information - it's like taking a writing course! I love it. :)

  2. Vivian, correct pronoun usage was one of my father's pet peeves -- he not only corrected us each time we were wrong, but he repeated the whole rule and its explanation every time.

    One time I made the mistake of remarking that "It's me" is correct in French (C'est moi.) Bad move! He then went over the pronoun rules for French, as well as how and why they differed from English.

    Yup, I can still repeat the whole discussion.

  3. Peggy, bet you don't mess up now. *laugh* I took French and taught it for a while. I had to switch hats often.

    I'm glad what I write about writing seems like a course. I'm still the teacher.