Who, I?

When personal pronouns don’t get along

If you go to Language Corner’s Facebook page (and while you’re there, you may as well “like” it), you’ll see a number of posts from Ron Sharp about people writing or saying things like “she called him and I on the phone.” Sharp says that “the incorrect use of I when me is required is a pet peeve” for he and his wife.

Other pet peeves in that same litter are “he” where “him” is meant, as above. And vice versa.

It seems as if fewer people can remember when to use what personal pronoun. So let’s have a little grammar lesson.

Of course, we all remember the difference between nominative and objective case, right? Didn’t think so. So let’s think of personal pronouns as active vs. passive. (We’re not going to get into possessive personal pronouns here, which would have required us to say that, for Sharp, incorrect usage is a pet peeve of his.)

The active (nominative) pronouns are “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “we,” and “they.” “They” are the ones, um, acting: “I went there”; “She’s my BFF.”

The passive (objective) pronouns are “me,” “you,” “him,” “her,” “us,” and “them.” “They” are the ones having things done to “them”: “I talked to her”; “We told them, didn’t we?

In simple sentences, it’s easy to see which to use. “She called her on the phone” seems obvious. But make the sentence a bit more complicated or, heaven forbid, add a conjunction in there, and all hell breaks loose.

For some reason, constructions like “me and her went there” have taken on popular patina, spoken or written even by presidents and members of Congress. The one good thing to say about those is that at least the speaker or writer is staying in the same (objective) case, albeit the wrong one.

The traditional test has been to take the personal pronouns as separate entities to figure out which one to use. “Me went there” and “her went there” sound correct to almost no one, which should be the clue that it should be “I and she went there.” For some, who may have been taught that “I” should come last, making it “she and I went there” may make it sound better.

Putting the pronoun at the end of the sentence, especially following a comparative word like “than,” seems to throw people off. Should it be “she’s richer than me” or “she’s richer than I”? Some people were taught that if you added the implied words after that last personal pronoun, it would make things clearer: “She’s richer than I am rich.” The good news is that colloquial use enables a passive (objective) pronoun like “me” to live happily at the end of a sentence in all but the most formal communications.

There used to be a special place in hell reserved for people who used the passive pronouns after the verb “to be,” as in “it’s me” instead of “it’s I.” But that circle is populated now only by people condemned by pedants who insist on following formal, if outdated, rules. Many people, though, still grind their teeth when they hear someone say “This is him.” Just avoid those people, unless one of them is you.

There, that isn’t so hard, is it? If it is, just speak of everyone as “you.” Then you’ll never get it wrong, will you?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.