I have a confession to make.
I’ve been putting off this blog for over a year, as the subject matter is one of the most difficult for me – and perhaps for you, too.
In formal grammar lingo it’s called “case,” and for our purposes it means matching the subject (which I’m using in a very broad sense) to the pronoun. Let me explain with a few examples.
Between you, me, and the lamppost
Ever hear someone say: “Between you and I”?
Whenever you have a preposition before a pronoun, that pronoun needs to be objective, i.e., me, him, her, them.
- “Are you going with her to the movies?”
- “I was stuck between him and her while waiting in line.”
More objective pronoun issues
- “Mother put my sister and I in the dog house.”
This sounds right, right? But it’s wrong.
Break the sentence up, and you’ll see why:
- “Mother put my sister in the dog house.”
- “Mother put me in the dog house.”
You’d never say “Mother put I in the dog house”; therefore, you need the objective pronoun, me, instead of I. (If you feel you must use the word I, you can change the sentence to read, “My sister and I are in the dog house.”)
- “Him and me are best friends.”
This is a simple subject-predicate sentence, and therefore you would use normal, subjective pronouns, i.e., he and I.
- “Mother put my sister and me in the dog house.”
- “He and I are best friends.”
Don’t do this
- “My parents are giving money to myself and my wife.”
- “Myself and Dirk were the only ones who did not get food poisoning.
First of all, never, EVER, use “myself” unless the subject of the sentence is “I” and you are doing something to yourself. And remember that “myself” is never the subject of the sentence; it can only be the object. Here’s what the above sentences should look like:
- “My parents are giving money to me and my wife.”
- “Dirk and I were the only ones who did not get food poisoning.” (Don’t put I first; it sounds bad.)
The easiest way to figure this out is to simplify the sentence, or to break them into two sentences before you put them back together again:
- “My parents are giving money to me.”
- “My parents are giving money to my wife.”
- “I did not get food poisoning.”
- “Dirk did not get food poisoning.”
With regard to the myself issue, you can use it only when you are truly doing something to yourself:
- “I am keeping myself from getting sick on the ship by taking anti-nausea pills.”
- “I have given myself permission to feel nauseated on the ship.”
- “However, I will disappoint myself if I am sick in public.”
Variation on the theme
Here’s a legitimate “self” sentence in the 3rd person:
- “The phrase, ‘What has My beloved to do in My house’ (Jeremiah 11:15), is referring to the prophet himself.”
Don’t be like those people who think it’s more formal and serious to use “myself.” You will end up merely sounding pompous and weird:
- “The party was given by myself and my girlfriend.”
- “This is a gift from myself to you and yours.”
For crying out loud, just say me!
P.S. You can even sound pompous in the 2nd and 3rd persons:
- “The one who scored that touchdown was himself.”
- “The only one who can take care of the baby is yourself.”
Remember that song, “I Gotta Be Me“?
Okay, so you don’t remember it. I do, however, and when you need an objective pronoun after a preposition, you, too, gotta be me.
Fowler (who else?) puts in his 2 pence
My friend Fowler is a real stickler for proper case. Check out what he says in his Modern English Usage; it’s classic (emphases mine):
Let me confess my faith that case visible and invisible is an essential of the English language, and that the right policy is not to welcome neglect of its rules, but to demand that in the broadcasts, the newspapers, and the novels, from which most of us imbibe our standards of language, they should be observed.
Let’s take Fowler’s different case cases one by one.
Him who vs. He who
This one has been the bane of my existence for many years, but thanks to Fowler I am able to do the right thing most of the time.
- “Let him who wrote that nasty memo identify himself.”
- “It’s a good idea to accept her who wants so badly to be a member of the swimming team.”
- “My girlfriend is she who is wearing red lipstick.”
- “Our enemies are they who have the guns in their hands.” (You could also say “those who.”)
These don’t sound so good, but they are correct.
The easiest way to figure this out is to get rid of the who and either shorten or rearrange the sentence, e.g.:
- “Let him identify himself,” not “Let he identify himself.”
- “Accept her onto the swimming team,” not “Accept she onto the swimming team.”
- “She is my girlfriend,” not “Her is my girlfriend.”
- “They are our enemies,” not “Them are our enemies.”
As Fowler says, “The temptation has been to regard he-who as a single word.” Don’t do this. Instead, treat the pronoun as a separate entity and match it with the clause that does not contain the word who.
A few classic examples
- “Do not trust a friend; do not rely on an official; guard the pronouncements of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom.” (Micah 7:5)
- “With reference to the Polar bear, it may possibly be urged by him who would fain go still deeper into this matter…” (Moby-Dick, note 4)
In the biblical example, you’d shorten the verse to “Guard your mouth from her,” temporarily deleting the “who” clause. In the Moby-Dick excerpt, you would say “It may possibly be urged by him,” again deleting the “who” clause.
When you can use “he who”
If you have a “to be” verb before the word who, you would use the subjective pronoun. Likewise, if the pronoun is the subject of the sentence:
- “It is I who locked the door.”
- “She who sewed the dress is sitting in the front pew.”
“To be” doesn’t determine case
Read the following sentence:
“She is to be the Nebraskan candidate in the Miss America contest.”
She is the subject of this simple sentence, and is is the verb; no one would ever say, “Her is to be the Nebraskan candidate in the Miss America contest.” However,
“The candidate for Mr. America representing South Dakota has turned out to be him with whom I was always in competition.”
In this sentence, you would use the objective pronoun, i.e., him, because 1) you are in competition with him, not with he, and 2) the word whom goes with him, not with he (remember he/who and him/whom?).
Now, I know you’re thinking, “But can’t you simplify the sentence and say ‘He is the candidate,’ and therefore the proper pronoun is he?'”
Well, yes, but then you’d have to rewrite the sentence, e.g., “He is the candidate for Mr. America representing South Dakota, and I was always in competition with him.” Nice sentence, by the way.
Admittedly, all of these are super-hard sentences to get right, and don’t fuss if you will sometimes err. We all do. Unfortunately, most people – readers as well as writers – don’t care whether there’s a misplaced he or her in a sentence. While I am in complete agreement with Fowler and most certainly disagree with the apathy of many of today’s readers and writers, their lack of knowledge and interest can work to your advantage in the rare event that you won’t get it right.
What do you think? Has case always been hard for you? Do you think it matters nowadays? Let me know what you think in the Comments. And as always,
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