If my mail from readers is any indication, solving our pronoun problems would also get rid of the grammar problems that bother people the most. Few gaffes generate as much heat as confusing the subjective pronouns I, he, she, we or they with the objective pronouns me, him, her, us or them.
For example, a university professor says regarding the cost of the election per voter: “It bothers people inside the beltway and attentive watchers like you and I more than it does regular folks.”
Another professor – oblivious of the irony in his own comment – says that the only people in his department who care about grammar “are two other instructors and myself.”
A newspaper columnist writes: “I notice that you and her have the same last name.”
A TV home decorating show host says the new office makes “a wonderful workplace for Sherry and I.”
An editor says, “This is between you and I,” and a professional writer says, “They introduced the new director to him and I.”
An entertainment reporter says of a May/December marriage: “She’s at least 15 years older than him.”
A radio commentator says, “My wife has a better memory than me.”
A newscaster says, “Baker acknowledged that it was him who sent the anonymous note.”
Each of those examples is ungrammatical. It seems we all remember that it’s wrong to say, “Johnny and me are going” – just as wrong as “me is going.” It’s wrong because we need a subject, and me is an object. We naturally say, “I am going,” but “Call me.” We’re so suspicious of “Johnny and me,” however, that we may avoid it even when it’s right. For example, we might say: Call Johnny and I. Give it to Johnny and I. Tell Johnny and I. If we take Johnny out of those sentences, though, we see how wrong “I” is – as wrong as call I, give it to I, tell I.
The pronoun errors beginning in the examples above are just variations on the same theme. The pronoun we choose depends entirely upon whether it should be subjective or objective. If it’s the actor (a subject), it should be I, he, she, they, we, who. If it’s acted upon (an object), it should be me, him, her, them, us, whom.
“Self” pronouns are different from other pronouns because they are neither subjects nor objects, but reflexives (I hurt myself) or intensifiers (they are going, but I myself am staying home). Again, if we would not say, “Myself is going,” we likewise must not say, “John and myself are going.” If we would not say, “Let myself know,” we likewise must not say, “Let John or myself know.”
Removing other people from the sentence and letting the pronoun stand alone quickly reveals which role the pronoun is playing – subject or object. Substituting other pronouns also can help in certain sentences. For example, if we know that it is right to say, “This is between us,” then we also know it is right to say, “This is between you and me” – because us is objective, and any pronoun we choose for this particular sentence would also have to be objective. “This is between you and I” is the same thing as “This is between we.”
Pronouns in “than” sentences are easy. If you can add a verb to the pronoun, and the sentence makes sense, choose the subjective pronoun: He’s older than I [am]; I’ve been here longer than she [has]. We would not say older than me [am], been here longer than her [has].
The example above, “Baker acknowledged that it was him who sent the anonymous note,” shows the common problem of using an objective pronoun after a “be” verb (is, are, was, were, been). The accepted and still preferred practice is to follow a “be” verb with a subjective pronoun.
Some experts say it’s high time we accepted such brief structures as it is me, that’s her, it’s him. I don’t disagree, especially in speech, but the problem is our audience. Many see those constructions as wrong and – worse – ignorant. That perception is hazardous to any communicator but especially for those working in print, a permanent record in which the real or perceived error remains to offend again and again. Our message is lost when the reader gets caught up in form rather than content.
The best solution to such problems is to use neither a construction that might be seen as ungrammatical nor one that might be seen as stiff or stuffy. We can always write around the problem. In the “Baker” example above, the newscaster could have said, “Baker acknowledged that he sent … .” And instead of it is me, that’s her, it’s him, we could always say: It is Paula. That’s Mary. It’s John. Both in speech and in writing, those choices are easy, quick, and correct.
Paula LaRocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was writing coach for 20 years. A collection of her Quill columns, “Championship Writing,” is available from Marion Street Press. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.