Saturday, October 8, 2011

Personal pronouns - subject or object? - A discussion.

In few areas can the divide between traditional grammar and actual usage be as wide as in the 'case' of personal pronouns. Here we take a look at why.
EFL course books and websites usually steer clear of language controversies, no doubt so as not to confuse students. But for me this is part of what makes grammar such a lively subject, and as you are advanced students, I think you can 'take it', so here goes.
Before we start, try your hand at this exercise. Try and choose the options which you think would be most natural in informal spoken English.

Preliminary exercise - Use your instinct and fill the gaps with I, me or Me

1When was younger, we lived in the country.
2Mummy, Sam hit .
3Give a ring when you get back.
4Oh, is that for ? That's so kind of you.
5Who did that? - It wasn't !
6I didn't like that film at all. - neither.
7Just between you and , it's my birthday today.
8She has invited you and to her party on Friday.
9They've asked you and to help with the preparations.
10He doesn't approve of you and seeing each other.
11He's just as lazy as .
12 and some of the guys from the office are going to the pub. Coming?
13! Go to the pub the night before the exams. You must be joking!
14He didn't go to work yesterday. - Neither did .
15Hi Mum. It's . How's tricks?
16My sister's much younger than .
17My husband and have invited a few people round for drinks tomorrow.
18Luckily my in-laws live far way from my husband and .
19He complained after seeing Sheila and kissing in the playground.
20Peter and Jane were in the front of the car, Sammy and in the back.
21Who wants an ice-cream? - , please.
22He takes more risks than would.
23Oh, silly ! I forgot to buy milk.
24, think it's time for a drink.
25She's as forgetful as am.


The answers I've given are what I think would be natural in normal speech, but some of them are a bit controversial. We shall now see why.

Who killed Cock Robin?

examples of birds [1] - Visual Dictionary Online
There's an old nursery rhyme called Who Killed Cock Robin?, of which these are the first two verses.
Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.
However a more modern version would probably go:
Who killed Cock Robin?
Me, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
Me, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.

Personal pronouns standing alone

Let's look at the first line of the poem.
Who killed Cock Robin?
The full answer to this question would consist of Subject + Verb + Object:
I killed Cock Robin, said the Sparrow
The traditional grammarian therefore reasons that we have two possible shortened versions::
I did, said the Sparrow
I, said the Sparrow
While all of us accept the first version, most of us have a problem with the second - that lonely 'I'. The principle that seems to be at work here is that in informal English we don't like using subject pronouns when they are not followed by a verb. We prefer using object pronouns (in this case: me), a practice that is anathema to the traditionalists.
So we are in fact looking at three possible answers to the question: Who did it?
  • Me. - informal
  • I did - neutral to formal
  • I - very formal
Usually we use the first, but sometimes we might think that that is a little too informal, perhaps when we go for a job interview, or meet our girlfriend's parents for the first time. In which case we use the second option. Personally I can't imagine ever using the third option, but I suppose some people do.
The problem is that many grammar websites will only allow the second and last options as being correct, and some will only mention the last.
EFL / ESL, linguists and most modern dictionaries etc are not so categorical, seeing it as a matter of register. Or to put it another way, it's horses for courses (idiom - see below). In other words how appropriate each form is for a given occasion. And here's New Fowler's:
In answer to the question Who's there?, the natural answer is Me, not I.
So we can begin to see a pattern:
Me.informalUse an object pronoun if it is not followed by a verb
I didneutralUse a subject pronoun if it is followed by a verb (or auxiliary)
Ivery formalOnly use a subject pronoun on its own when being very formal
Now look back at questions 6, 13, 21, 22 and 24

Who's this guy Fowler?

In this discussion I quite frequently mention Fowler's. This is shorthand for the book, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. This was originally written by Henry Watson Fowler and first published in 1926. While advocating a direct and vigorous use of the language, he also mocked certain artificial rules (like not ending a sentence with a preposition) and opposed pedantry. But as his book mixes elements of both prescriptive and descriptive grammar, he is seen by both camps on the language battlefield as a frame of reference.
Fowler's has been re-edited and re-published twice, with the prescriptive element probably diminishing each time. The second edition appeared in 1965, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, another giant in the field of English usage, and author of The Complete Plain Words (1954)
The edition I am quoting from is the 3rd edition (1996), or The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, edited and largely rewritten by Robert Burchfield. This is firmly in the descriptive camp, and no doubt not as popular with the traditionalists as the original.

Personal pronouns after the verb to be

Look at these sentences:
  • And which of you two spilt the milk? - It wasn't me, it was her.
  • (On the phone) Hi Mum, it's me.
  • Who said that? - Well, it wasn't me!
The verb to be is a linking verb and theoretically doesn't take an object, but a 'complement to the subject', which is usually a noun phrase or an adjective. According to the traditionalists if a pronoun follows be it should be in subject form, and therefore the examples above are all 'incorrect'.
But not surprisingly most of us nowadays treat be like any other verb in this respect and are using object forms, just as in the examples above.
And like the examples with a pronoun alone, when being more careful we might say:
  • And which of you two spilt the milk? - I didn't do it, she did.
  • Who said that? - Well, I didn't!
But there are some people out there who seriously think we ought to answer like this:
  • And which of you two spilt the milk? - Not I, it was she.
  • Who said that? - Not I!
The writer at, for example, while admitting that
In spoken English, most people tend to follow to be verbs with object pronouns
goes on to give these examples:
  • Example: It could have been them.
  • Better: It could have been they.
  • Example: It is just me at the door.
  • Better: It is just I at the door.
How on earth can the two examples which sound least natural to the average educated speaker be 'better'? It's codswallop!
As I see it, it would be just as inappropriate to say 'Hi Mum, it is I.' in normal conversation as it would be to write 'Who did it?' 'It was him' in an academic essay. As I said, horses for courses.
Here is what New Fowler's has to say:
It's me, in answer to the question Who is it?, is now standard.
It is also seems to me inappropriate to mix registers, as in It's I. Contractions belong in an informal to neutral register, not in a formal one. And who isn't going to use contractions with their mum?
See questions 5 and 15

Personal pronouns after prepositions

A preposition must have an object, therefore the correct form to use is the object form - me, him, her etc.
  • Give it to me
  • I bought it for her, to cheer her up
  • This is between you and me
For some reason that last one gives people (and I mean native speakers) problems. Some people think that between you and I sounds 'more correct', when in fact it is an error. This is probably because they have been criticised for using me after and in circumstances where in the dim and distant past I would have been used, but where me is now the norm.
Interestingly, New Fowler's (3rd edition) gets much angrier at this use of the subject pronoun instead of the object pronoun than the other way round.
See questions 4, 7, 10 and 18

Personal pronouns after than and as

Here is again:
  • Tranh is as smart as she/her.
  • Zoe is taller than I/me.
The question being should we say she or her, I or me in these sentences. The writer then correctly says that completing the sentences with a verb would give you:
  • Tranh is as smart as she is.
  • Zoe is taller than I am.
She therefore reasons that the correct answers in the first pair of sentences are as she and as I. But she makes no mention of our distaste for verbless subject pronouns, and in fact most of us would say ... as her and ... than me.
Most sensible authorities (including New Fowler's) see both versions as correct, and whether to use one or the other is simply a matter of register, or formality. Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary giving he is taller than me as an example, says:
I would be considered much too formal for almost all contexts, especially in British English
Again we can see a similar matrix:
... as her
... than me
informalUse an object pronoun
... as she is
... than I am
neutral - formalUse a subject pronoun if it is followed by a verb (or auxiliary)
... as she
... than I
very formalOnly use a subject pronoun on its own when being very formal
See questions 11, 16, 22, 25

Personal pronouns at the start of a sentence

In its excellent usage note on me (link below), Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says succinctly:
I is now chiefly used as the subject of an immediately following verb. Me occurs in every other position
But even in this position I is not safe. On a BBC TV comedy I was watching the other day, one of the characters, who speaks in standard English, not in dialect, said:
Me and Barry used to work together.
And here is linguist, Gabe Doyle, writing at MotivatedGrammar:
Stan Carey, me, and Dominik Lukes all wrote posts ... about non-literal uses of literally (Motivated grammar)
I should point out that this only happens when there is more than one subject (so-called conjoined subjects); we would never dream of saying - Me worked with Barry or Him wrote a post about .... But something seems to change when there's more than one of us.
This is perhaps the most controversial use of object pronouns of all. Because here, me has 'usurped' (the term used in New Fowler's) the role of subject itself. Yet in informal speech this use is quite common, although we probably have the sneaking impression that we are not being 100% grammatically correct.
But New Fowler's for one doesn't seem too bothered, and lists several examples taken from modern literature.
I think that in British English especially, the expression 'So-and-so and I' sounds quite formal, possibly because the Queen is famous for saying, 'My husband and I'.
Personally I think I probably use both constructions, for example the informal - Me and Pete are going to the pub. Coming with us? or the more neutral, more 'polite' - Sandra and I are having a few friends round for drinks. Would you like to come?
It's a strange thing, but when we use I, we are polite and put the other first person first - Sandra and I, but when we are more informal it's generally 'me first' - Me and Peter
See question 12

A case apart? A linguistic diversion

The use of personal pronouns is one of the most controversial areas in English, where the gap between formal grammar and actual practice amongst educated speakers is probably wider than in any other area.
The reason for this is not difficult to see. Pronouns are the one part of English where we still have cases. These are different forms of the same word for different functions. Usually the word ending changes, but sometimes, as in Celtic languages, the change occurs at the beginning.
Polish for example, has seven cases, like classical Latin, and all nouns, adjectives, determiners etc, have these changes. Old English also had a case system, but it has dropped out of use except in a small way in pronouns. I say a small way, because we've only been left with three cases, as opposed to the seven of Polish, or four of German.
In Slavic and Celtic languages, the case system is an important foundation of the whole language, so speakers take it for granted. But in English it seems, like the subjunctive, to be out of kilter with the rest of the language so speakers try and get round it somehow.

Terminology - subject or subjective?

In EFL we usually speak about subject and object forms, but on grammar websites you will usually see these referred to as subjective and objective cases, or even nominative and accusative cases.

Horses for courses

This idiom, like many in English, comes from horse-racing. Racecourses differ from each other: the ground can be harder or softer; and although most courses are anti-clockwise, a few are 'right-handed'; where jumps are involved, these may also differ. Some courses start uphill and finish downhill, others vice-versa. All this will affect a horse's performance, especially as some horses prefer certain conditions to others. So some horses are better suited to certain racecourses than to others.
So, horse for courses means that some things or people are best suited for certain situations, while others do better, or are more appropriate, in other situations.
For more idioms from horse-racing and betting see my post.

There are grammar websites and then there are grammar websites - a rant!

There are several different types of grammar websites:
  • ESL / EFL websites - these give good advice about standard grammar usage. Good examples would include the British Council, English Club, and
  • Sites directed at native speakers which point out what is expected in formal writing, while accepting that is not the same as in the spoken language. Good examples are Prof Paul Brian's Common Errors and
  • Sites directed at native speakers which seem to consider that the rules of formal English (which hardly anyone speaks) are the only correct rules, and everything else is 'wrong'. While these sites are admittedly concerned mainly with writing, they often don't make a distinction between registers. Something is either 'correct' or not.
  • Sites like GrammarGirl, GrammarBook and Grammarphobia, which although mostly of the second category, occasionally wander into the territory of the third.
When I talk of certain grammar websites, it is the third category I have chiefly in mind. I would like to finish by quoting a paragraph from the introduction to A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, by linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey J Pullum and published by Cambridge University Press. What they say about prescriptive usage guides could just as well apply to these websites.
Perhaps the most important failing of the bad usage books is that they frequently do not make the distinction ... between standard vs non-standard dialects on the one hand and formal vs informal styles on the other. They apply the term 'incorrect' not only to non-standard usage like ['I ain't told nobody'] but also to informal constructions like ['She must be taller than me']. But it isn't sensible to call a construction incorrect when people whose status as fully competent speakers of the standard language is unassailable use it nearly all the time. Yet that's what (in effect) many prescriptive manuals do.


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