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The television anchor told a heartwarming story of a disabled young man taken to his high school prom by 37 dates. “It was a memorable day for he and his classmates,” the anchor concluded.

That’s a common error that occurs in writing more than it does in speech. As we frequently say, pronouns can be difficult. As we did previously on this subject, we could go all grammar on you and talk about subject pronouns and object pronouns or the nominative, accusative, and objective case, but it’s easier to offer simple “tests” to let you see when you’re using the right one.

In the above example, just eliminate “his classmates” and it’s clear what you would say: “It was a memorable day for him.” Even if you switch the word order, the pronoun doesn’t change: “It was a memorable day for his classmates and him.”

That was easy, yes? Apply the same “test” when other people are involved: Let’s say the young man is telling people about the prom. Would he say …

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a) “Me and they had a great time.”

b) “Them and I had a great time.”

c) “I and they had a great time.”

d) “They and I had a great time.”

e) “Them and me had a great time.”

f) Some combination of the above.

g) Something else.

 

(He could, of course, just avoid the issue by saying “We had a great time,” but what would be the fun in that?)

This is a trick question.

A grammarian or the “test” above will tell you that c) and d) are correct, because “I had a great time” and “they had a great time” are both correct. But language is affected by idioms. (It’s also affected by idiots, but they’re not relevant here.) While “I and they” is technically correct, it doesn’t “sound” right to most American ears. “Me and them had a great time” may not sound correct to others, which is why our usual advice when confronted with a difficult question of “right” or “wrong” is to avoid the problem entirely and rewrite the sentence.

Now, let’s move our pronouns to the end of the sentence. “I had a great time with they,” seems obviously wrong. But what about “I had a better time than they”? Should it be “I had a better time than them”?

One school of thought says that, because the sentence is a comparison, it needs to be balanced with the verb on either side: “I had a better time than (they/them) had.” In that scenario, it’s obvious that he had a better time than “they.”

But those idioms moved in again, and, as we’ve dropped the verb at the end of the sentence, the pronoun has started to change as well. It’s nearly as common to see or hear “I had a better time than them” as to hear “I had a better time than they.” If you can stand the grammar, one English language and usage site has examined this change and concluded: “Both forms are standard, so my advice to a writer choosing between these forms is to consider that the ‘traditionally correct’ form is unimpeachably correct but a bit formal. Choose the form that best matches [the] tone and formality level of your writing.”

That writer said it better than us/we did/can.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.