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Spellcheck Cannot Save You! The 411 on Case in Pronouns

I see problems with this all the time in published work, in personal writing, in blog posts, in tweets—you get the idea. It’s pervasive. And I think a big part of it is that we’re not properly taught about case in what passes for grammar instruction at the elementary and high school level (never mind… [Read More]

Understanding case with pronouns by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

I see problems with this all the time in published work, in personal writing, in blog posts, in tweets—you get the idea. It’s pervasive. And I think a big part of it is that we’re not properly taught about case in what passes for grammar instruction at the elementary and high school level (never mind what happens in college/university). It’s glossed over at best because English dropped a lot of the fiddling with case except when it comes to pronouns. And that’s why people are confused and struggling.

So, I’m going to try to help.

I might make it worse. But I hope not.

Me, Myself, and I: The Mystery of Case in Pronouns

Understanding case with pronouns by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comThere are three main cases: nominative (also called subjective), accusative (also called objective, which is a huge clue!), and genitive (also called possessive, which is contentious for reasons that are a whole nother bucket of fish I’m not about to dump into this post). Look up in the title to this post. Me is accusative/objective. I is nominative/subjective. And then there’s myself. It and the others like it that end in -self are called “reflexive” pronouns, and they have no case. Grammatically, they’re called plain. (Check out pages 104 through 106 in Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar if you want to know more. It’s a less-expensive version of their Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.)

A Look at Usage

If you look back at the previous paragraphs in this post, you’ll see I a lot. And you’ll probably realize that it’s the subject of the clauses in which it appears.

“I see.”

“I think.”

“I am going to try.”

“I might make it worse.”

Yes, it’s all about me. Me, me, me. Which is the accusative case of I, and that’s because it is the object of the verb or the preposition in the clause or phrase in which it appears.

“It’s about me.” About is the preposition, and me is the object of that preposition.

Let's Pause for a Quick Detour

Understanding case with pronouns by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comI’ll make a detour here to discuss a new (grammatically speaking) usage we’re seeing more often, which most of us old guard classify as an error but which many younger folks (dear gods, I feel old typing that) consider normal usage: “Join my friends and I for a party.”

My fingers nearly dislocated as I typed that, although I consider myself descriptivist. I would never say “Join I for a party.” I’ll bet the people who say what I typed back there wouldn’t either; but as soon as there’s an “and” involved, there’s the “I,” right on schedule. There was a brief Twitter discussion of this the other day, actually. At this point, there’s no data in published work for “join my friends and I” in the Google Ngram search engine. (That’s a wonderful tool for writers and editors. It shows the frequency of use of two or more words or phrases in published material, on an easy-to-read graph.) What that means for purposes of this post is that it’s being heard, but not seen. People say it; it’s not being published (yet). Copy editors are earning their keep correcting the error. I promise.

The grammatically correct version is “Join my friends and me for a party.” Join me. Join my friends. Join us. Us is the plural accusative first-person pronoun, the objective form of we. There’s no I there. Well, except the one in j-o-i-n.

Flexing the Reflexives

Now, what about those reflexive pronouns? The plain ones like myself?

"I hurt myself typing."

Understanding case with pronouns by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.comThe object of the verb is also the subject of the clause (independent, in this example). Put another way, the action of being hurt is reflected back onto the subject of the sentence. I is the subject (nominative case); myself is the object of the verb hurt, but instead of saying “I hurt me typing” we say “myself.” This is grammatically called a “complement use.”

This can also happen with prepositions. “Tell me about yourself.” The understood subject of the sentence is you; the object of the preposition about is yourself.

There’s another use of those reflexive pronouns, and you might know one from Dr. Seuss:

“He, he himself, the Grinch carved the roast beast.” (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Theodor Geisel, Redbook, October 1957)

There, himself is used for emphasis as a modifier (emphatic use). It’s important to the story to understand that the Grinch didn’t get someone else to carve that beast for him. He did it himself. He himself did it.

Talking About "Them"

Now is the perfect time to talk about themselves and themself. With the growing acceptance of the singular they for an individual who identifies as neither male nor female, it’s become obvious that themselves is a bit clunky. The plural -es makes it impossible to see it as anything but plural, unlike they. Both the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary have recently added themself to their lexicons, along with usage notes for it. You may be surprised to learn that themself has been part of English since the 14th century. No newcomer, this one.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably already seen that I’m a proponent of it. I don’t force it on anyone, of course, but if I see a place where it’s a logical option, I make sure to mention it. Not using themself is not a mistake, not an error; if a client chooses not to use it, I honor that choice. I have to say, though, that when I suggest it and they accept, it warms me inside.

Don't Make This Common Mistake!

Understanding case with pronouns by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

Now, we can back up a bit to another common misuse: “Join my wife and myself for dinner.” Ugh. No. Grammatically, that’s a wreck. “Join my wife and me for dinner” is the standard form. Why not myself? Remember: reflexive pronouns indicate that the object of the verb or preposition is also the subject of the clause. What’s the subject of this independent clause (sentence)? It’s the understood you. So right off the bat, we can see that the subject and the object are different. That’s why the reflexive pronoun is incorrect. We need the accusative case me here.

Here’s another one: “Harry and myself went to the movies last night.”

What in blazes is a reflexive pronoun doing as the subject of a clause? I have no idea, but I hear it and see it. And I twitch. Standard English tells us the sentence should be “Harry and I went to the movies last night.” We need the nominative case pronoun as the subject; the fact that it’s a compound subject (“Harry and I”) has no bearing on the case. Drop the “Harry and” if you need to, to see which pronoun you’d use. Would you say “Myself went to the movies”? I highly doubt it. Similarly, would you say “Me went to the movies”? Cookie Monster would, but would you?Understanding case with pronouns by Karen Conlin for BookWorks.com

A Quick Rundown of Pronouns and Cases

Nominative: I, you, we, they, he, she, it

Accusative: me, you, us, them, him, her, it

Genitive: my/mine, your/yours, our/ours, their/theirs, his, her/hers, its

Plain: myself, yourself/yourselves, ourselves, themself/themselves, himself, herself, itself

For more information, I’ll suggest hitting the local library for a copy of Huddleston and Pullum. There’s also plenty of websites with excellent grammar info. I’m fond of Purdue’s Online Writing Lab. Here’s a link to their pronoun section.

By all means, ask questions in the comments if you’re unclear on anything I’ve said here. I’ve tried to simplify, because, after all, I’m not teaching an online grammar course. However, if my explanation confuses you, I’ll do my best to clarify.


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