Grammar: Proper Pronoun Usage 101

The proper use of pronouns has all but ceased in our modern age. In truth, common vernacular has begun to create a new rule with regards to proper usage here- mainly, that there is no rule. Furthermore, the proper use of pronouns has even accrued a sort of negative stigma in our modern speech; it is seen as stuffy, even obtuse in some cases. This is not quite the travesty that some linguistic purists might make it out to be. If the goal of conversation is communication, and if understanding is achieved, then what have we really lost? Yet, there are instances in which one might need to adhere to proper usage, particularly in scholarly writing and, perhaps, in formal interviews, etc. Thus, I have compiled a quick guide to proper pronoun usage. My goal here is to make the rules as simple and accessible as possible. So, without further rambling, let us begin.

To begin, I will give a brief list of the pronouns most commonly used in the English language:

First Person Singular: I, me

First Person Plural: we, us

Second Person Singular and Plural: you

Third Person Singular: he/she, him/her, it

Third Person Plural: they, them

Relative Pronouns Relevant Here: who, whom

This does not compile the entire list of pronouns in common usage. The purpose of this essay is, particularly, to address confusion surrounding when to use particular Personal and Relative Pronouns (he vs. him, who vs. whom, I vs. me, etc.).

First, of the common pronouns above, some are subject pronouns and others are object pronouns. The simple difference between the two is that a subject pronoun commits and action while an object pronoun receives an action.

Subject Pronouns: I, we, you, he, she, it, they, who

Object Pronouns: me, us, you, him, her, it, them, whom

Examples: I gave the book to him.

He gave the book to me.

In this example the subject pronoun is used to signify who is giving. The use of the object pronoun indicates to whom the book is given, or who is receiving. This can be tricky at times. Often the same action can be communicated with either the subject or the object pronoun in use, depending on how the sentence is structured and where emphasis is placed.

Examples: I got the book.

The book was given to me.

This is clearly the same scenario, the same action. The difference here is that the first sentence places emphasis on the reception of the book, whereas the second sentence places emphasis on the giving of the book. In the first sentence, the person represented by the pronoun I is performing the action by getting the book. In the second sentence, an unidentified other is performing the action of giving the book, and the person represented by the pronoun me is the object, or target, of that action.

Making the distinction between subject and object is the most vital part of correct pronoun usage. Once one comes to an understanding of the distinction between subject and object pronouns, one only need remember which pronouns are assigned to which roles and the meat of the work is done.

This completes a majority of the initial discussion of proper pronoun usage. I will close with a few more examples, for the sake of clarification, and with a brief tip concerning multiple pronouns appearing in the same sentence.

Examples: For Whom the Bell Tolls I gave her the book.

Who tolled the bell? She gave the book to him.

To whom did she give it? We ate.

We were eaten. You ate us.

Warning: some of the most confusing pronoun usage situations appear when multiple pronouns are used in the same sentence. When dealing with a situation like this, omit one of the pronouns to see how the sentence would sound with only one, and then do the same with the other. It is much easier to judge proper usage in a simplified sentence.

Not: The books were given to her and I.

To simplify this sentence, omit the pronoun her and rewrite the sentence.

What you are left with: The books were given to I.

This is most obviously incorrect. So, we replace I with me and form the sentence:

The books were given to me. --> The books were given to her and me.

This, though it may sound stuffy if said in everyday conversation, is correct pronoun usage. It may not be imperative that you speak in such a way, but most people looking at essays and articles will expect this kind of attention to detail and understanding of basic grammar.

I hope this article was helpful. Good luck.

- mterry7

Comments 15 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Well done. While the purpose of language is to communicate, it is problematic that, in my opinion, "grammar schools" no longer do an adequate job teaching grammar. Spelling is a lost art. Probably because we're not taught the language very well, we have trouble speaking proper English. As a result, it sounds stilted to say, "It is I." It's easier to say, "It's me." "Whom" is also a word that often sounds stilted, so many people just say "who." I've been a writer all my life, but I still struggle with this type of grammatical problem. Your grammatical tip, and others I see on the hub pages, are excellent. But they are not easy to remember and incorporate in one's everyday language. Nevertheless, I think it's critical to try to speak and write grammatically, and to use the right words to convey one's meaning if one expects the language to grow and prosper in the best way.

vaidy19 profile image

vaidy19 8 years ago from Chennai, India

Your essay is quite confusing in many places and ways. Permit me to cite a couple of instances.

1) You say:

Examples: I got the book.

The book was given to me.

In order to highlight the function of 'me' as a pronoun, you could have simply used the sentence: He gave me the book. Whereas, you have needlessly introduced a sentence in the passive voice, which could create confusion.

2) Elsewhere, you say:

Examples: I gave the book to him.

He gave the book to me.

These sentences, though grammatically right, are inelegant. See if they read better when re-written as follows:

I gave him the book.

He gave me the book.

The reason is simple: Here we have two cases: The Accusative and the Dative. The relevant questions are: What did you give him? The book.

To whom did you give the book? To him.

'I gave him the book' is elegant because it follows a simple rule: When there are two objects, the shorter one comes first. That is, 'him' comes before 'the book'. The same explanation applies to the other sentence: He gave me the book.

Incidentally, I am more than a little surprised to find that you see the need to write this piece about pronoun usage. Perhaps I don't recognise the audience here.

mterry7 profile image

mterry7 8 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks for the comment, vaidy19. To clarify, as the title indicates, this is an elementary essay, written solely to address elementary rules of usage. Therefore, elegance and style were not taken into account, nor addressed. Yes, all examples are grammatically correct, and that was the sole point of the essay. Persons looking for basic differentiation between object and subject pronouns would comprise the essay's intended audience. I understand that there should be no need for an article such as this. But, sadly, there is a need, as most schools, and even larger academic institutions, do not directly address elementary grammar. But, hey, at least we have common vernacular...

So, ultimately, I feel that some of the criticisms in your comment are about as meaningful as, perhaps, one quibbling over whether or not to use the word "correct" after "grammatically" instead of "right." Of course, "correct" would be more elegant, but you did make your point adequately, especially in light of the purpose of your comment.

Furthermore, there is some scholarly debate surrounding the current existence of the dative and accusative cases in modern English. In fact, most agree that both cases no longer exist in all but a few odd moments in usage. These moments are largely regarded as anomalies, throw backs to the language's sire, that are not, alone, enough to warrant the identification of an entire case in our modern language. I would be interested to hear more from you on this, though, as you sound well versed in this particular debate. Let me know.


Sister Irene T. Kervick 8 years ago

The difference between co-ordinate and subordinate conjunctios is its structure.

In this sentence I used ITS STRUCTURE. The reason was agreement with a singular subject DIFFERENCE. Should it be their structure? I teach /mentor first year teachers in Philadelphia and need help on this. Thanks you for your help and for pointing me in th3e direction of some help Sister Irene


Pete 7 years ago

Thank you for helping me to understand the proper use of pronouns again. While reading your text, I once again found myself back in grade school standing in front of a blackboard chalk in hand. Thanks for the memories.

mterry7 profile image

mterry7 7 years ago from San Francisco Author

Heh, no problem Pete. You've brought up, in an off-hand way, a great point here. These are elementary concepts. Ironically, most people could not tell you, if asked on the spot, the difference between "who" and "whom." Kudos to your elementary teachers and their judicious use of blackboards.

ayeila 7 years ago

can you give more examples on how to use the pronouns i and me?my neophytes could hardly get the explicit difference between the two.thanks a lot.

Ayelet 6 years ago

"though it may sound stuffy if said in everyday conversation" The funny thing is that the wrong way actually sounds stuffy to me! People have over-compensated for previous generations' misuse of objective pronouns (Jimmy and me went to school.) by always using the subjective (She looked at Jimmy and I. Between you and I...).

A major point of contention between me and other people - even some who are otherwise on target with their grammar - is their misuse of pronouns when in prepositional phrases. I constantly her "between you and I...". It drives me bonkers!

turjo 6 years ago


vada smith 5 years ago

i dont understand it please help?

John L. Campbell 5 years ago

Too often I see the use of the pronoun, that, for a person, instead of the pronoun, who. Quite common in newspapers, where they should know better.(i.e.) "We serve people that need legal help." One other: using the objective pronoun "myself" as a nominative subject: Myself and Jane studied together. Ugh!

Levertis Steele profile image

Levertis Steele 4 years ago from Southern Clime

Too often schools get blamed for what children do not learn. Children's first teachers are their parents, siblings, and other close relatives. "It takes a whole village to raise a child" is a proverb that is full of wisdom. Families and educators are responsible for children's education. The child is also responsible. By the time a teacher sees a child, his speech pattern is about established. Yes, the child is at school to learn more, but he still needs his family's help.

If parents are uneducated, and cannot speak the language well, how much reinforcement of clasroom learning do you think a child will get at home? He learns pronoun/antecendent agreement this week, but he hears a constant misuse of it at home and in the community. So, there goes the reinforcement.

One of the biggest mistakes critics make is to make fun of others' misuse of the language. When you criticize people and call them dumb, they design an agenda to make you miserable. You can never help them because they will not listen to you or respet your views. You lose them. Kindness and decency go a long way.

It takes a whole village to raise a child, and each person in the village/community is a teacher whether good or bad. Who is responsible for the education of children? We all are.

Levertis Steele profile image

Levertis Steele 4 years ago from Southern Clime


Thanks for a great hub!

Wes 4 years ago

Does the object pronoun rule hold true when there are multiple entities within the sentence's object and one of those entities is the first person pronoun?

1. "He gave books to Tom and I"

2. "He gave books to Tom and myself"

3. "He gave books to Tom and me"

The first one sounds most correct, but only the last one follows the object rule you explained in the post. It doesn't sound correct when spoken. The second one doesn't sound too bad when spoken, but I cannot see how it would follow any grammatical rule.

If you switch to something other than first person:

"He gave books to Tom and she"

"He gave books to Tom and herself

"He gave books to Tom and her"

Only the last sounds correct when spoken and reinforces the object rule.

David Guidos 4 years ago

I have a comment regarding the order of the names and pronouns that seems to have been ignored. I remember being taught that when multiple people are being discussed, the preferred order is to mention other people who are present, followed by yourself and finally third parties. That would make it technically more correct to say "John gave the book to me and Sally." The concept of mentioning yourself before

non-present third parties seems to make sense, even if it might at first seem slightly discourteous. I wondered if that concept has changed over the years or whether anyone else remembers being taught that.

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