Get Your Pronouns Right

It’s astonishing how many people have trouble with personal pronouns.

Perhaps like Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, they think it’s somehow inelegant to say me – so the heroine of that classic book says ‘A girl like I’. But (between you and me) that’s wrong: it should be ‘A girl like me’, of course.

Others, faced with the awful choice between I and me, opt for what they think is the safer ground of myself. This is less wrong (if that’s possible), but not ideal – and it leads to weird constructions like ‘Mohammed and myself went to the meeting’. Myself is best used reflexively (I asked myself) or for emphasis (I did it myself).

To refresh, I, you, he, she, we and they are subjects; me, you, him, her, us and them are objects.

Example: She did that to me not Her did that to I.

So, how to get it right every time? Five simple rules:

1. After a preposition

After at, between, from, in, of, on etc., the pronoun will always be an object (me, him, her, us, them NOT I, she, him, we, they) [you is easy – it’s both a subject and an object, so you’ll never get that one wrong].

So between you and me, it’s ‘a girl like me’.

2. Take out the extra person

When in doubt, take out the extra person.

If you think it might be ‘She invited Jacques and I to the meeting’, remove Jacques from the picture and you’re left with ‘She invited I to the meeting’, which obviously can’t be right.

3. Add missing words

Is it ‘she is older than him’?

No. What you’re saying is ‘she is older than he is‘, so it’s actually ‘older than he’ (although in colloquial speech, him  would be just about acceptable).

4. Subject is always ‘I’ (not ‘me’)

The subject of a sentence can never be me, him, her etc.

People routinely say ‘Mary and her went to the meeting’, but it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Rule 2 will help you here too (‘her’ didn’t go, did she?).

5. ‘To be’ takes ‘I’ (technically)

If you’re a purist, the verb to be should always take I (subjective completion) not me (object).

This may sound a bit archaic in conversation, however, and your humble scribe won’t wince if you say ‘Hi, it’s me’. On the other hand, ‘It is I’ or ‘This is she’ can have a satisfyingly forbidding effect on cold callers who ask to speak to you by name.

To recapitulate:

  1. Preposition + me
  2. Take out the extra person
  3. Add the extra words
  4. Subject is always I not me
  5. To be takes I (except when it sounds fussy)

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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