Monday, August 24, 2015

Subject and Object Pronouns: More Hard Core Grammar


Using subject pronouns correctly can make you sound like you’re auditioning for the part of Thurston Howell III in a film reprise of Gilligan’s Island: “It could well have been he; I’ve never trusted the professor.”

Though grammatically incorrect, the object pronoun, him, would almost always be used in this case, at least in speech. Picture this: a cop slams you into a wall and shoves a mug shot in your face. “Is this the guy who sold you the heroin?”

You’re not going to say, “It’s he! It’s he!” No, what you’re going to do is deny, deny, deny, deny. You played the game, now you do the beef. You can do a year, and your homies will appreciate it. Do it for the ‘hood! Man up, thug! But if you were going to roll over and squeal like a little pig, you’d say, “It’s him! It’s him!”

It’s more conversational, but it is in fact wrong. I am for the most part a prescriptivist in grammar, in that there must be a compelling reason to deviate from existing conventions, and because it’s more comfortable to say, mostly because of repeated error, for me isn’t reason enough, so I try never to use object pronouns where a subject pronoun is called for. Admittedly though, if in an LAPD choke-hold, I suspect I would burp out a feeble, "It's him! It's him!" In writing though, you can call me Thurston the Third with regard to subject pronoun use.

The most common subject pronoun use is easy. I, you, they, he, she, we. I booked a gig. You brought your parents. They were horrified. He stormed out. She followed. We perform in drag. Object pronouns are used when you are substituting a pronoun for something functioning as the object of a sentence. Me, you, them, him, her, us. You’ll notice that the second person subject and object pronouns are identical.

If you ponder that a while, you’ll also eventually notice that if you were to attempt to use both the subject and object forms of the second person pronoun in a single sentence, you would be forced into using the reflexive from of the second person pronoun, yourself, as the object pronoun. “You are only fooling yourself, Donald.”

The most common mixup with subject and object pronouns is with the Mary and I construction when it appears as the object of a sentence. It’s Mary and I won the prize, but The prize was awarded to Mary and me.

So the moral of the story is that using the correct subject form in some sentence structures makes you sound snobby. If you want to get that one wrong in speech, that’s no big deal. Proceed. Avoid it in formal writing. Either write it properly, or if you really hate the way the correct expression looks and feels, rewrite the sentence. Getting the “Mary and I” wrong in direct object use should make you wince a little, and any other subject versus object pronoun errors should make you writhe in pain.