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Pronouns and Case

The Rules

Let's review the rules for using pronouns so these little words won't make you crazy as you write and speak.

  1. Use the nominative case to show the subject of a verb. Remember that the subject is the noun or pronoun that performs the action of the verb.
    • Question: I know of no other person in the company who is as smarmy as (he, him.)
    • Answer: He is the subject of the understood verb is. Therefore, the sentence would read: “I know of no other person in the company who is as smarmy as he.”
    • Question: (Who, Whom) do you believe is the best writer?
    • Answer: Who is the subject of the verb is. Therefore, the sentence would read, “Who do you believe is the best writer?”
    • Of course, anything associated with grammar can't be that easy. Here's the exception to the rule you just learned: A pronoun used as the subject of an infinitive is in the objective case. For example: “Billy Bob expects Frankie Bob and (I, me) to make squirrel stew.” The correct pronoun here is me, because it is the subject of the infinitive to make.
  2. A pronoun used as a predicate nominative is in the nominative case. A predicate nominative is a noun or pronoun after some form of to be (is, was, might have been, and so on).
    • Predicate nominatives are the bad boys in the back row of homeroom because they equal trouble. Here's what I mean:
    • The verb to be, in all of its forms, is the same as an equal sign. Whatever comes before it (almost always a pronoun in the nominative case) must also follow it.
    It was we.
    nominative = nominative
    • Question: It was (they, them) who first suggested getting the 90-pound puppy.
    • Answer: It was they who first suggested getting the 90-pound puppy.
  3. Use the objective case to show that the noun or pronoun receives the action.
    You Could Look It Up

    In the nominative case, the pronoun is used as a subject; in the objective case, the pronoun is used as an object; in the possessive case, the pronoun is used to show ownership.

    Quoth the Maven

    To help you choose the correct pronoun, mentally supply the missing verb. For example, “Herbert knows the material better than (he/him).” Supplying the missing verb “does” tells you that the correct pronoun is he.

    You Could Look It Up

    A predicate nominative is a noun or pronoun after some form of to be (is, was, might have been, and so on).

    Quoth the Maven

    Ignore interrupting expressions such as do you believe, do you think, do you suppose (and so on). They do not affect pronoun case.

    Quoth the Maven

    With a who/whom question, change the word order: “You can send whom to help us?” This shows that you is the subject and whom is the object of can send.

    Danger, Will Robinson

    Direct objects appear in more guises than a quick-change artist. A pronoun can be the direct object of a verb, the object of an infinitive, the object of a preposition, or an indirect object.

    You Could Look It Up

    An indirect object tells to or for whom something is done.

    • Question: (Who, Whom) can you send to help us?
    • Answer: Whom is the direct object of the verb can send. Therefore, the sentence should read: “Whom can you send to help us?”
    • Question: The taxidermist promised to notify Herman and (I, me) of his plans for the moose.
    • Answer: Me (together with Herman) is the object of the infinitive to notify. Therefore, the sentence should read: “The taxidermist promised to notify Herman and me of his plans for the moose.”
    • Question: It is always a pleasure for (we, us) employees to have a day-long meeting.
    • Answer: Here, us is the object of the preposition for. Therefore, the sentence should read: “It is always a pleasure for us employees to have a day-long meeting.”
    • Question: The Internet gave my sister and (I, me) some interesting ideas.
    • Answer: Me (together with my sister) is the indirect object of the verb gave. Therefore, the sentence should read: “The Internet gave my sister and me some interesting ideas.”
    • You can tell a word is an indirect object if you can insert to or for before it without changing the meaning. For example: The Internet gave (to) my sister and (to) me some interesting ideas.
  4. A pronoun used in apposition with a noun is in the same case as the noun. An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed after another noun or pronoun to identify, explain, or rename it.
    • Question: Two bond traders, Alice and (she, her) were given bonuses large enough to buy their own banana republic.
    • Answer: The pronoun must be in the nominative case (she) because it is in apposition with the noun bond traders, which is in the nominative case. Therefore, the sentence should read: “Two bond traders, Alice and she, were given bonuses large enough to buy their own banana republic.”
  5. Use the possessive case to show ownership.
    • Question: The manager refused to acknowledge that the memo was (her's, hers).
    • Answer: Hers is the correct spelling of the possessive case, which is needed her to express ownership (belonging to her). Therefore, the sentence should read: “The manager refused to acknowledge that the memo was hers.”
    • Be careful not to confuse possessive pronouns and contractions. To help you remember the difference, carve this chart into your desk at work.
    Possessive Pronouns Contractions
    its (belonging to it) it's (it is)
    your (belonging to you) you're (you are)
    their (belonging to them) they're (they are)
    whose (belonging to whom) who's (who is)
    • Question: The boss disapproves of (me, my) leaving the office early.
    • Answer: The meaning of the sentence requires the possessive case: my. Therefore, the sentence should read: “The boss disapproves of my leaving the office early.”
  6. Use the subjective case after linking verbs. Remember that a linking verb connects a subject to a word that renames it. This one actually makes perfect sense: Because a pronoun coming after a linking verb renames the subject, the pronoun must be in the subjective (nominative) case.
    • Question: The flasher of the month was (I, me).
    • Answer: Use I, because the pronoun renames the subject, the flasher of the month.
    • Question: The one who will benefit from this honor is they and (me, I).
    • Answer: Again, go with I, because the pronoun renames the subject.
  7. Use -self forms correctly with reflexive and intensive situations.
    • As you learned in Verb Tenses and this section, reflexive pronouns reflect back to the subject or object. Check out these examples:
    • The superhero embarrassed himself.
    • Unfortunately, he had to rely on himself to save the day.
    • Don't use reflexive pronouns in place of subjects and objects:
    • Question: The diner and (myself, I) had a chat.
    • Answer: The diner and I had a chat. (Use the pronoun subject I, not the reflexive form.)
    • Remember that intensive pronouns provide emphasis; they make another word stronger. They're like the vitamin B12 of pronouns. Here's an example:
    • The superhero felt that his reputation itself was at stake.
Quoth the Maven

When you have a pronoun combined with a noun (such as we employees, us employees), try the sentence without the noun. You can usually “hear” which pronoun sounds right.

It is always a pleasure for we to have a day-long meeting.

It is always a pleasure for us to have a day-long meeting.

Doesn't that second choice just sound better? (Don't answer that!)

Quoth the Maven

Ask yourself what the sentence is saying. Here, ask yourself what does the boss disapprove of? Certainly not me! Rather, he disapproves of my leaving the office early.

You Could Look It Up

Linking verbs indicate a state of being (am, is, are, and so on), relate to the senses (look, smell, taste, and so on), or indicate a condition (appear, seem, become, and so on).

Sorry, Wrong Number

What should you say on the phone: “It is me?” or “It is I?” Maybe you should just hang up the phone and send a fax.

The rivalry between “It is me” and “It is I” is right up there with Pepsi and Coke battling for market shares.

The “It is I” camp argues that forms of the verb to be, such as is and was, should be followed by pronouns in the nominative case. Therefore, here the pronoun would be I.

On the other hand, the “It is me” camp counters with the argument that noun case in English has disappeared. Further, they contend that the pronoun case has become so weakened that the force of word order now overrides the force of case.

The placement of the pronoun in the object part of the sentence “It is me” and “It is us” has become increasingly acceptable as standard usage even in boardrooms. But if you're speaking with a language purist who is likely to become offended by today's more relaxed standards of speech and writing, use the time-honored “It is I” instead of “It is me.”

Seventh-Inning Stretch

Stand up, wave your arms around wildly, then sit a spell and take this brief quiz. Score yourself, party hearty to celebrate your victory, then look back over the sentences that gave you a headache.

  1. Gary and (I/me) have decided to become Pat Boone imitators.
  2. The victims are (they/them).
  3. (We/Us) actuaries are going to run away and join the World Wrestling Federation.
  4. The cause is unquestionably (she/her).
  5. Madness takes (it's/its) toll. Please have exact change.
  6. Her kisses left something to be desired—the rest of (her/she).
  7. Human beings, (who/whom) are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
  8. Sam and (me/I) heard that the Internal Revenue Service wants to improve its image; they will no longer answer the phone with “Next victim,” and a new mascot, Timmy the Tax Collector, will replace the Grim Reaper.
  9. The only difference between (I/me) and a madman is that I am not mad.
  10. Those (whom/who) make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.
Answers
1. I 5. its 8. I
2. they 6. her 9. me
3. We 7. who 10. who
4. she
Strictly Speaking

Pronouns that express ownership never get an apostrophe. Watch for these possessive pronouns: yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs.

Danger, Will Robinson

Avoid nonstandard reflexive and intensive pronouns as you would no-class kinfolk, the ones with federal box office addresses. Here are the words to shun: theirself, theirselves, themself, themselfes, and any other variations the human brain can hatch. Nonstandard expressions such as these are not accepted as correct written or spoken English in business settings.

Strictly Speaking

Should the childhood mecca be “Toys R We”? Should Sammy Davis Jr. have sung “I Gotta Be I”? (According to grammar frumps, yes!)

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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